Mystery Bird: Red-winged Blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus

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[Mystery bird] Red-winged Blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus, photographed at Shoveler Pond, Anahuac Refuge, Texas. [I will identify this bird for you tomorrow]
Image: Joseph Kennedy, 26 February 2007 [larger view].
Nikon D200, Kowa 883 telescope TSN-PZ camera eyepiece 1/750s f/8.0 at 500.0mm iso400.

Please name at least one field mark that supports your identification.

Rick Wright, Managing Director of WINGS Birding Tours Worldwide, writes:
[Along] With House Sparrow, this is the favorite species of every Ornithology TA when it comes time to administer the semester’s field practicum. And it’s a bird that vexes the beginner no end, while it comes easily to birders with even a little experience.
Let’s look at habitat. The bird appears to be perched on a large, robust grass, of the sort one might expect in a marshy edge or a wet ditch. Bells ringing yet? Its streaky plumage might suggest an emberizid sparrow, but in reality there are no emberizids this densely and darkly streaked and striped. The strong legs and feet and the spike-like bill point us in the right direction: this is an icterid, a New World blackbird.
From there it’s easy. The moderately long tail with scalloped undertail coverts, the rusty tone of the wing with the clear white tips on the median coverts, the heavily streaked underparts, and the hint of pink at the front of the long, clear supercilium make this a Red-winged Blackbird.
What about Tricolored? A bird of that species in the analogous plumage would show a solidly dark belly contrasting with the paler streaked breast. And it wouldn’t be in Texas, either, though I confess that that’s the easy way out of an identification problem that can at times be more challenging than this classically well-marked red-wing makes it look.
Review all mystery birds to date.


About GrrlScientist

grrlscientist is the pseudonym of an evolutionary biologist and ornithologist who writes about evolution, ethology, and ecology, especially in birds. After earning a degree in microbiology (thesis focus: virology) and working at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, she earned her PhD in zoology from the University of Washington in Seattle, where she studied the molecular correlates of testosterone and behaviour in white-crowned sparrows. She then worked a Chapman Postdoctoral Fellow at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where she studied the speciation and distribution of lories and other parrots throughout the South Pacific Islands. A discarded scientist, she returned to her roots: writing. Formerly hosted by The Guardian (UK), she now writes about science for Forbes and for the non-profit think tank, the Evolution Institute and she writes podcasts for BirdNote Radio. An avid lifelong birder and aviculturist, she lives with a flock of songbirds and parrots somewhere in Germany.
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0 Responses to Mystery Bird: Red-winged Blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus

  1. Sven DiMilo says:

    field marks: little, brown.

  2. Female red-winged blackbird. The beak is too long for a sparrow. Though it took me a long time when I was first seeing this bird as a 12-year-old to figure that out. “Grandma, why are those sparrows always hanging around with the red-winged blackbirds at your feeder?”

  3. Bob O'H says:

    I’m with Sven on this one.

  4. Hilary says:

    Certainly a blackbird, probably a female – but the white streak on the wing suggests the possibility of being a young male. The feathers have enough gray to make Tricolored Blackbird a possibility.

  5. Albatrossity says:

    Female red-winged blackbird, for certain. Icterid bill rather than a sparrow bill, and a hint of yellow in the lores.
    This bird always causes consternation for ornithology students during a field practical exam!

  6. The Ridger says:

    I agree – female redwing. Sitting on the canegrass like that is another good clue – they love the wetlands.