Toronto Star article March 30/201 - Margaret Bream
The boys are back in town.
The boys are back in town.
The male red-winged blackbirds, I mean.
I heard my first loud “konk-a-ree” of the year on March 9 while on a walk around Col. Sam Smith Park with the Toronto Field Naturalists. The bird’s nasal call gave everyone a lift, for the red-wing is one of the earliest avian migrants to return each year, making it a convincing, reassuring sign of spring (this month’s blustery, unpredictable weather notwithstanding).
Right now, only a few males of the species Agelaius phoeniceus have arrived. These are the intrepid, advance reconnaissance troops, checking out the conditions for courting and mating in their summer territories.
Over the next couple of weeks or so, more males will trickle in to stake out their land claims. Then, in a few more weeks, there will be a huge invasion as the females return en masse from their wintering grounds down south, to select a mate and set up housekeeping.
The predictable return of the red-wing has inspired paeans for more than a century. Consider, for example, British poet William Ernest Henley’s 1876 ode (which, curiously, lacks a title) to this most common of birds:
The nightingale has a lyre of gold,
The lark’s is a clarion call,
And the blackbird plays but a boxwood flute,
But I love him best of all.
For his song is all of the joy of life,
And we in the mad, spring weather,
We two have listened till he sang
Our hearts and lips together.
A few years after Henley wrote his endearing poem, Frank M. Chapman, a curator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, wrote of the lowly blackbird thusly in his seminal 1897 work, Bird-Life — A Guide to the Study of Our Common Birds:
“But when early in March the Redwings come, then we know that the tide of the year has turned. With perennial faith in the season they come in flocks of hundreds, singing their springtime chorus with a spirit that March winds can not subdue.”
Bird-Life, with enchanting drawings by Toronto-raised Ernest Thompson Seton, can be read online at http://archive.org/stream/birdlifeguidetos00chapman#page/n9/mode/2up .
Chapman’s reference to red-wings arriving in “flocks of hundreds” gives a clue to this noisy bird’s scientific name. Its genus name, Agelaius, is derived from an ancient Greek word meaning “belonging to a large group” and its species name, phoeniceus, is from the Greek for purple-red.
The latter designation refers to the bright red epaulettes males wear on their shoulders. Female red-winged blackbirds do not have red on their wings and, in fact, are not even black. Throughout the year the gals look like streaky, brown, oversized sparrows.
I, for one, am delighted to have our first red-wings back. But Chapman, the American curator and ornithologist, had a particularly fine way of expressing the magic he felt in the red-wings’ return. Here is a passage he wrote in 1912:
“A swiftly moving, compact band of silent birds, passing low through the brown orchard, suddenly wheels, and, alighting among the bare branches, with the precision of a trained choir breaks into a wild, tinkling glee. It is quite possible that in the summer this rude chorus might fail to attract enthusiasm, but in the spring it is as welcome and inspiring a promise of the new year as the peeping of frogs or the blooming of the first wild flower.”