A mixed flock of sparrows–House and Eurasian Tree–swoop back and forth across the Greenway trail, from the brush to the east into the corn stubble in the west. Soft chirps punctuate the still air, as their pale bellies glow yellow overhead in the fading afternoon sun. Glittering black eyes watch, wary, as the approach of an ungainly, unfeathered biped sets off a hopscotch wave of individual birds flit past their neighbors to keep a safe distance from the intruder.
A few sparrows settle in a tree ahead, where a larger bird sits silent. It’s a male red-winged blackbird, his crimson epaulets hidden. He is not defending territory or wooing the ladies–that will come later, in the spring. For now, he is riding out the winter. Why is he here after so many of his brethren have migrated away to the south? Who can say?
Data for Johnson County show that the abundance of red-winged blackbirds peaks during spring migration, in early March, with more than 80 birds reported on count sheets on average. There is a slightly lower peak for fall migration, in mid-October, averaging just under 50 birds reported. Throughout the summer breeding season numbers are fairly steady between 5-10 birds reported, as birds leave migratory flocks and settle in territories established by individual males upon their return from wintering grounds.
But in December? Nearly nothing! eBird data shows that for the months of December and January, in the past hundred and some years only a single record shows up at the Sycamore Wetlands, for 7 birds on 12/12/17, with just a scattering of other records around Johnson County. Is this fellow alone, left to struggle for survival until the other blackbirds return in a few months? Does he have unseen friends lurking in the area to keep him company?
Though their summer diet is largely made up of insects, blackbirds will also eat waste seeds and waste grain, including corn (which should be in good supply in the fields around the Greenway).
So good luck, my unseasonable friend! Stay warm, stay safe, and I hope to see you again.
Originally published in Sycamore Greenway Friends.