Why we should skip Groundhog Day and look for Red-winged Blackbirds instead

by Anders Gyllenhaal
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Today is Groundhog Day, and though Punxsutawney Phil had good news early this morning, he’s usually wrong. It’s time to switch to a better predictor — and it turns out there’s one waiting in the wings: The Red-winged Blackbird. 

The blackbird, one of the first birds to return on its spring migration, will start showing up in just a few weeks. That’s a signal of spring you can trust — and spot in almost every state of the union with its brilliant red patches atop jet-black feathers.

The Red-winged Blackbird can be found hanging out in marshes, waterways, ditches and even city parks. This bird isn’t shy or quiet: The blackbird’s got a striking, stuttering song — and can often be seen gripping the tallest stalks, sometimes swinging in the wind, as if on stage.

Most wonderful of all, while its red patches may be hidden when stationary, they stand out like colorful shoulder pads when the birds take flight.

Although most Red-winged Blackbirds migrate, they don’t travel as far as many birds do. So as they begin to move north in mid February (with males ahead of females), you’ll see them in higher latitudes before spring even thinks about arriving.

This guy’s is usually wrong, meteorologists say.

The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club has built a nice tradition on whether the groundhog can see its shadow or not (no shadow means spring’s on its way; seeing its shadow means a delayed spring). But it turns out that when they compare Phil’s predictions with the actual weather, he’s usually wrong. Early this morning, there was no shadow — hence spring may be on its way.

The Blackbird, on the other hand, bases its arrival on a combination of weather, insects and instinct. So watch for the first arrivals, and let’s see which of our wildlife barometers turns out to be right. 

Here’s an animated map from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology that shows the widespread presence of Red-winged Blackbirds and how they move in the spring and fall. Click the arrow to launch the navigation:

The female is far less colorful. (Getty photo)

Finally, here’s a few more blackbird facts:

The Red-winged Blackbird is notably polygamous. The male takes up with as many as a dozen females in a season, and the female in turn will mate with more than one suitor.

The birds are so plentiful in many parts of the country — and their feeding preferences are broad enough  — that they often do significant damage to crops. Understandably this has led to constant friction with farmers.

For now, though, we’ll put all that aside in celebrating this early bird. Welcome back – and may this worthy bird bring spring along with it.

Bright red wings like shoulder pads.

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lizagyllenhaal January 29, 2019 - 3:04 pm

As a gardener, my sworn enemy is the groundhog, so I’m delighted to learn the Red-winged Blackbird is a more reliable — and far better-looking — harbinger of Spring. Really love these animated maps!

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