Epaulets have been around since the 17th century signifying military rank, authority, and strength, projecting power over all who may doubt. Over the years they got bigger and more gawdy with ridiculous tassels and fringes to where they got into the way of actually fighting the war. A colorful form of them also appears on the academic robes at each graduation season. Chief Justice Rehnquist surprised us when he donned them on his judicial robe at the impeachment trial of President Clinton. In all cases they make a statement; I’m important, don’t mess with me.
Who has not welcomed the trill of the Red-winged Blackbird in early spring, beating its rivals to the prime marshland and grassy fields, staking out a breeding territory for the season. I know this is a common North American bird, seen coast to coast and Canada to Mexico (some say the most numerous native North American bird), but there are some interesting tidbits about it I did not know.
The male’s epaulet is a striking field mark, but not always displayed. He flaunts the wide red and narrower yellow bands when he’s perched on the tall cattails, attracting a mate, or aggressively defending his large nesting territory. He is a polygynous bird with each male having up to 15 mates and several active nests in his territory. For all his loud singing, epaulet displaying, and cocksure bravado, it is interesting to note that DNA studies have shown that up to half of the nestlings in his several nests have been sired by other males.
The epaulet can also be concealed, almost completely when that becomes advantageous, perhaps when sneaking around a rival male’s nesting territory. The nests are generally low in marshy vegetation, carefully constructed by the female from woven grasses, sometimes several feet in length. A Californian subspecies has lost the yellow-band and is called a “Bicolored Blackbird”.
The female and juvenile birds are barely distinguishable, each with a streaky plumage and whitish supercilium. I remember spending quite a while watching and photographing this unusual large “sparrow” several years ago, before finally figuring out it was a female Red-winged Blackbird. I understand this is a common experience among fledgling birders.
The summer diet is primarily insects, while in the winter it’s seeds. This allows the bird to be a short-distance migrator, wintering just south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Here in the mid-Atlantic states we are near the northern edge of the wintering grounds, and depending on the severity of winter you may see the birds all year long. The winter plumage of the male shows the upper body feathers edged in buff (see picture above), which apparently gradually wears off giving the all-black appearance of spring.
These birds typically form large mixed flocks with cowbirds, grackles, and starlings in the fall and winter, ranging across the harvested fields and wetlands. I’ll never forget the huge flock I saw one winter day at the Blackwater NWR in Dorchester County, Maryland. The distinct scattered red epaulets were still visible from a great distance as the flock of thousands wheeled around the brown marshland.