Birds of a Feather Flock Together

IMG_9142By Lori Nussbaum 

Flap flap flap flap…glide…flap, flap…glide…flap flap flap…and then the bird skillfully lands on the tallest nearby shrub in the open prairie. The male bird ruffles its black feathers while proudly showing off the red colored patches on its wings. This sharp color contrast easily catches one’s eye, and this bird all too well knows how good looking it is. As the bird is perched there, it loudly emits a repeating konk-la-reeee. This sound escapes its throat as it looks around scavenging for possible food sources.

This bird is the red-winged blackbird or Agelaius phoeniceus. The former term is its common name which accurately describes the bird’s appearance. The latter term is its Latin, or scientific, name. Unless you have a special interest in birds, the Latin name may not mean much to you. Let’s take a moment to break this complex name down. The first word Agelaius denotes to belonging to a flock. Outside the nesting season, red-wings often roost in huge concentrations, so that definitely fits. The second word phoeniceus is based on the deep red dye that was given to the Greeks by the Phoenician people. Hence, the word phoeniceus describes the bird’s red colored patch on its wings.

Both of these terms fit the description of the male red-winged blackbird perfectly, but do not describe the female of this species at all. The female seemingly wears a cape of invisibility due to its dark and streaky appearance. Often the female is misidentified as a sparrow since her coloring is more similar to a sparrow than her male counterpart. This unremarkable coloring is actually a great benefit for the female, since she can make and reside in her nest amidst upright stems of sedges without drawing unwanted attention.

The male red-winged blackbird confidently struts around his staked territory. Then he catches sight of another male bird flying into his territory. He pauses to hunch slightly forward. Then he splays his wings out to the side and parts his tail slightly. This maneuver accents his red colored patches on his wings while also appearing larger to threatening male contenders for his territory. Adult red-winged blackbirds are very aggressive in their nesting territory, often attacking larger birds that encroach as well as loudly protesting any human intruders. The male is highly concerned about the safety and well being of his mates and offspring.

It is the female’s responsibility to find the perfect location for the nest and then to collect the building materials for it. She is resourceful, using nearby material such as cattail leaves, reeds, or bark from trees. These items are normally held together by mud to create a small protected home for up to four baby birds. These baby birds will hatch after almost two weeks being incubated by the female. Then after only another two weeks, the baby birds will have fledged, which means that they are now big enough to fly away from the nest. The female works very hard to make a safe nest which is not used for too long.

Red-winged blackbirds can be found throughout North America and luckily for you, there are plenty of them around Kankakee Sands. I have the pleasure of seeing several red-winged blackbirds each day while working. Go for a drive around Kankakee Sands and enjoy the pleasure of seeing and hearing them interact in their natural habitat for yourself. You’ll be glad you did!

Source: “Birds in the Yard month by month” by Sharon Sorenson

NOTE: There will be a volunteer morning at Kankakee Sands 9 a.m. to noon CST on Saturday, June 13, 2015. The prairie is a beautiful place in the summer. Come join them as they work in one of Kankakee Sands’ first prairie plantings: the 1997 planting at Conrad Station Savanna. They will be removing non-native plants such as white and yellow sweet clover and spotted knapweed by pulling them out by hand. It’s very gratifying! They will provide training, work gloves, and any other necessary protective gear. Some form of work-boot is strongly recommended, along with long pants and long sleeves. A hat to provide your own, personal patch of shade is always a great idea as well! Work will be lightly to moderately strenuous. Please contact Tony Capizzo by e-mail at or call (219) 285-2184 with questions or to R.S.V.P.


This month’s Nature Notes article is written by Lori Nussbaum. Lori is a seasonal Restoration Management Assistant at Kankakee Sands this year. Lori is from Northeast Indiana and is a recent graduate from Purdue University with a dual major in Soil & Crop Science and Psychology. 

The Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands of Indiana and Illinois is 10,000 acres of prairie and savanna habitat in Northwest Indiana and Northeast Illinois, open every day of the year for public enjoyment.  For more information, click here or call the office at 219-285-2184.


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