Warm temperatures have filled our parking lot with cars and eager skiers and boarders- a sure sign of spring's arrival. The parade of skiers on the trail to Tuckerman Ravine isn't the only sign of spring, however. This morning, for the first I spotted a Red-winged Blackbird. Red-winged blackbirds are one of the first birds to return from their southerly overwintering locations.
The males, with their jet black bodies and flashy wings, are the first to arrive. The earlier they arrive the more time they have to find and claim a territory. Red-winged Blackbirds claim their turf using songs and displays. The most commonly known territorial display is called the Song Spread. The dominant male will spread its wings, revealing red patches and emit a metallic-sounding gurgle. (Birders, those super-patient people with binoculars, say it sounds a bit like male Red-winged Blackbirds are singing "Oak-a-lee".) Males are fiercely territorial during the breeding season, spending up to 25% of the daylight hours defending their claim.
Those showy feathers aren't what attract the much duller females to the males. Instead, the female Red-Winged Blackbirds select the best piece of real-estate and take the male that goes along with it. They look for a territory that will be relatively safe for nestlings as well as one with lots of food. Chances are the best territory has been staked out by the strongest, showiest male. Thus, the brightness of a male's wings is not directly related to how many females choose him, but it is related.
Keep an eye out for the bright red flash of a Red-winged Blackbird laying claim to the land. It's a sure sign that soon many birds will be returning to these summer breeding grounds, complementing "Oak-a-lee" with their own voices, and starting their own little families.