Screen_shot_2014-02-06_at_2.06.46_PMFebruary means longer days, little cards with hand-drawn hearts, and just when you are getting the hang of your diet, boxes of chocolates. It also means the return of the Red-winged Blackbirds! Although it usually still feels like winter and blizzards can be waiting in the wings, February starts the downward slope to spring. Most people think that the American Robin is the iconic sign of spring but some robins spend the winter here and emerge on warm days.

The true harbinger of spring is the Red-winged Blackbird.

Red-wings are sexually dimorphic, meaning the males and females are markedly different in appearance. The males are a sleek black all over with bright red “epaulets” on each shoulder with a narrow yellow stripe below. When the male is agitated or excited, he spreads his shoulders to present the red patch as a warning to other males or to attract females. Females are striped brown birds so different from the males that it takes an amateur birder a long time to figure that out. I speak from experience.

Male Red-wings are all about procreation. They show up in February in order to find the best mating and nesting spots. As soon as they arrive they start the famous screeching we hear in the marshes and wet spots all over Massachusetts. Claiming territory and driving other males away is the male blackbird’s equivalent of contact sports. The more sensible female shows up later when the homestead is staked out and build an elaborate nest for her eggs. Once the new birds have fledged she takes off back to warmer climes. The male stays on to be sure all his wives are gone. That’s right, he has many other mates and he defends them all. Presumably if blackbirds didn’t migrate he could keep up defending his many territories and families all year. Lest I portray the females as holier than thou, it seems some females mate with several males each season. What’s sauce for the goose, I suppose.

Toward the end of summer and into early autumn, Red-wings gather at night in huge roosts of thousands of birds. Soon they will be headed southward to southern U.S. and Mexico. After such an arduous process of mating, defending, nest-building and raising young these birds are happy to be on vacation.