Find any wet or moist habitat in Wisconsin and there you'll find the common red-winged blackbird. The black males ring out their summer-long song as they seem to sing "on-ka-lee." Surely you've seen them with their jet black body and brilliant red shoulder patch in or near Wisconsin's wetlands, wet ditches, or open farmland. They're usually perched atop the cattail reeds or tall stalks singing or making a scene.
Red-winged blackbirds have several kinds of calls. The "onkalee" is the best known and recognized. They also make a sharp "check" or "chuck" sound and repeat it irregularly. They'll flick their tail at the same time and use this to tell other birds that danger is near. The male has another special call for the predator alert - you'll hear them say "tsert" or "tseer" maybe even "tseeyeet." If you hear this, they might be telling you that you're too close and they feel threatened by you. It is best to leave the area and come back another day.
The male red-wings return to Wisconsin from their warm southern winter vacation in late February and early March. You'll see them returning in large mixed flocks, sweeping across the sky and landing in chattering groups in trees and wetlands. The males cruise back to Wisconsin at the first hint of warm weather to stake out the very best nesting location (kind of like going early to a football game to get the best seats in the house). The males can be seen defending their territory, a circular area, within a sea of cattails by flying to the perimeters and calling or puffing out their red wing patch for other males to see. They occasionally fly out of the territory to forage for a seed, fruit, or insect meal.
The brown-streaked females return a few weeks later and select a mate with the best "real-estate" that will give them a protected nesting site and good location for their young to grow. Males that select the best locations may have from three to five mates. Both male and female birds can be heard making a series of high, short whistles that sound like whimpering. This is their courtship mating call and it goes- "teeteeteeteetee." The males will also perch over the female and arch their back, spread their wings, and stay still. This is also to impress the female during courtship. Females blend right into their habitat with their brown speckled coloring as they hide between the cattail reeds to make a nest and tend it. The males stand guard overlooking the cattails and defending their nest and young.
Did You See That?
If you see the males and females doing odd things, don't be alarmed. Birds often make different sounds or visual displays with their bodies to send a clear message to others. As the male flies, they will sing "onkalee" and stall their flight, showing off their red and yellow shoulder patch, then spread their tail, lower their head, and end with a glide to the perch. The males are simply telling other birds that this is their territory and it knows the other bird is there. You might see the females flipping and waving one wing in the air over and over. The females will do the "wing-flipping" when they return to the nest with food for young and they think danger is nearby, including birdwatchers like you. The males will also chase each other out of their territory and call after them "tch tch tch tch tch" as if to say, "get out of my space!"
Watching the red-winged blackbird is fascinating and fun. You'll never be bored trying to figure out all of their quirks and songs. Take along your binoculars next time you visit a wetland and see if you can observe their behavior and pick out their territory. Remember though, the best time to observe territorial behavior is in March and April in the early morning from dawn to 10:00 a.m. or you may catch them in the act after 4:00 p.m.