July: The Proud Red Badge

Chesapeake Almanac Podcast Episode and Transcript

Episode 19
Copyright © John Page Williams Jr. All rights reserved.

This is John Page Williams with another reading from Chesapeake Almanac. The month is July and this chapter is entitled "The Proud Red Badge."

Picture this: You're surrounding a marsh point on your favorite river in your favorite small boat. An osprey on an old duck blind is coaxing its chicks to fly. In a cove down the shore, a great blue heron stalks the shallows for food. You beach your skiff or canoe or kayak on the point and walk back into the marsh. There you hear the familiar "oak-a-lee" song of the marsh, and you follow the sound to a clump of cord grass. Perched on a tall stalk is a male red-winged blackbird.

The Chesapeake Bay's best loved creatures are generally animals we can catch and eat, like blue crabs and rockfish. Then there are those that command our attention and affection just because they're attractive or interesting, like ospreys and herons.

The red-winged blackbird on the cordgrass stalk isn't nearly as prominent as larger birds, but he's admired because he is an essential part of the marsh scene. The jet black body with its bright red shoulder patches and buff gold chevrons underneath stands out against the greens, yellows, and browns of the marsh. His song isn't a song of great musical beauty, but neither is it raucous like the herons croak. It's part of the scene, a sound we recognize.

Red-winged blackbirds can be seen almost anywhere on the Bay and its tributaries, even above the fall lines of the James, Potomac, or Susquehanna. A salt marsh in Virginia, a tidal fresh marsh in Maryland, even a river meadow in central Pennsylvania---the red-wing inhabits them all. There are thousands of these birds spread throughout the Chesapeake watershed all year 'round, although individual birds do not reside here permanently. As the winter approaches, red-wings from New Jersey north to New England begin to filter into the Chesapeake region, while our summer nesters head south.

The male of the species carries the distinguishing red shoulder patches. The females and the young are brown and  insignificant looking, with streaky breasts. They stay out of sight in the marsh while the male attracts attention with his song. He is informing anyone who's interested, birds and people alike, that this part of the marsh is his territory.

When the male bird returns in early March from wintering grounds in the Carolinas, he stakes out his Chesapeake territory, often the same territory as the previous year. The red-wing uses his bright badges to attract his female, and they mate sometime in April. In May the female builds a nest down close to the marsh, hidden in clumps of salt bushes, giant cord grass, or cattails. She is solely responsible for incubating the eggs and feeding the young. The male would seem to have an easy life, sitting on his perch and showing off, but he does so specifically to defend the territory from other red-wings and from larger birds like marsh hawks and ospreys that stray into the area.

Most of the young fledge by sometime in July, though a few females may be raising young until August. These late broods may be the result of earlier nest destruction and renesting by persistent females. In any case, by late summer, the family groups begin to break up, leave the territory and spread over the countryside.

This movement as summer wanes signals a change in feeding opportunities. Red-wings of both sexes are opportunistic omnivores. They eat both plants and animal foods, depending on their needs and what is abundant at any given time. In breeding season, their need for protein is high, and a fresh crop of insects provides a rich food source both in the marshes and in farm fields nearby. As the fields are tilled, the birds will feed on grubs, caterpillars, and worms. Later on, the red-wings feast on the seeds that mature on both cultivated plants and weeds in field edges.

The marsh plants reach their peak of seed production toward late summer, and at the same time, the adult red-wings molt their feathers. This process can sometimes hinder their flying ability, so they loaf around the marshes and feed on what is locally abundant, preparing for their late summer ritual of deserting their territories.

By late summer, with new feathers grown in, the birds gather into large flocks and feed heavily, especially in the big upriver marshes where the wild rice is ripe. The winter birds get by on slim pickings, mostly seeds from any sources they can find, especially bird feeders.

The fall flocks of red-wings are huge, and they give us a sense of how many birds summer on the Bay. Although they are spread out broadly, we also see a few in midsummer, wherever we work or go around the water's edge. While the females go about their work unobtrusively, the males are active and are as obvious as small birds can make themselves. Watching one preside over "his" marsh is a good excuse for whiling away a summer afternoon.

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