Monday, April 17, 2017

Episode 364 (4-17-17): Red-winged Blackbirds

CLICK HERE to listen to episode audio (4:03)

Transcript of audio, notes on the audio, photos, and additional information follow below.

All Web addresses mentioned were functional as of 4-14-17.


From the Cumberland Gap to the Atlantic Ocean, this is Virginia Water Radio for the week of April 17, 2017.

MUSIC – ~ 13 sec – Excerpt of “Red Wing” by The Steel Wheels.

This week, music from the Harrisonburg, Va.-based band The Steel Wheels introduces a mystery sound that’s common to Virginia’s wet areas.  Have a listen for about 10 seconds, and see if you can guess what’s making the three-note song.  And your hint was in the music you heard!

SOUNDS - ~10 sec

If you guessed a Red-winged Blackbird, you’re right!   Found year-round throughout Virginia, this bird is often seen, and distinctively heard, around ponds, marshes, streams, and other wet areas.  A black body with red-and-yellow shoulder patches makes the males easy to identify; females, though, are brownish and lack the shoulder colors.  The Red-wing is one of five North American species of blackbirds, and one of about 20 North American species categorized in the family that includes blackbirds, cowbirds, grackles, meadowlarks, and orioles.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes Red-wings as “perhaps the most abundant and most commonly studied bird of North America.”  This species feeds on insects during the nesting season but later in the year switches to grains and seeds, with impacts in some cases on corn, sunflowers, and other crops by birds gathered in large, mixed-species flocks.  About the flocking characteristic, authors Alice Jane and Robert Lippson—in their 2006 book Life in the Chesapeake Bay—wrote that “as fall approaches, [Red-wings] throng in huge mixed flocks with grackles and cowbirds...[gathering] in great clouds and [spiraling] in long, seemingly never-ending smoke-like plumes” until they “suddenly descend into a grove of trees.”

Thanks to The Steel Wheels—who put on a summer festival called the Red Wing Roots Music Festival—for permission to use this week’s music, and we close with a few more seconds of “Red Wing.”

MUSIC - ~33 sec


For more Virginia water sounds, music, and information, visit us online at, or call us at (540) 231-5463.  Virginia Water Radio is produced by the Virginia Water Resources Research Center, part of Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment.  Thanks to Ben Cosgrove for his version of “Shenandoah” to open and close the show.  In Blacksburg, I’m Alan Raflo, thanking you for listening, and wishing you health, wisdom, and good water.


“Red Wing” is copyright by The Steel Wheels, used with permission.  The version used in this episode is from the 2011 album “Live at Goose Creek”; the song was first released on the 2010 album, “Red Wing.”  More information about The Steel Wheels is available online at  In 2017, the Red Wing Roots Music Festival will be July 14-16 at Natural Chimneys Regional Park at Mt. Solon, Va. (Augusta County); more information about the festival is available online at

Click here if you’d like to hear the full version (2 min./22 sec.) of the “Shenandoah” arrangement/performance by Ben Cosgrove that opens and closes this episode. More information about Mr. Cosgrove is available online at

A male Red-winged Blackbird in California in 2009, showing the red and yellow wing-bar colors.  Photo by Lee Karney, made available for public use by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's National Digital Library, online at

One of many Red-winged Blackbird habitats: Stroubles Creek along Plantation Road on the Virginia Tech Campus in Blacksburg, where the bird sounds used in this episode were recorded on March 17, 2017.

Red-winged Blackbird painting originally published between 1827 and 1838 by John James Audubon in Birds of America (plate LXVII [67]), as reprinted in 1985 by Abbeville Press, New York.  Audubon titled the painting “Redwinged Starling or Marsh Blackbird—Icterus phoeniceus,” but it is clearly the Red-winged Blackbird (scientific name Agelaius phoeniceus).  A Red-winged Starling (scientific name Onychognathus morio) is an African species with a much different appearance (see  The painting includes an adult male (top), young male (middle left), adult female (middle right), and young female (lower), accompanied by blooming Red Maple branches.  Photo taken April 17, 2017, from the reprint copy (no. 6 of 350 copies printed in 1985) owned by Special Collections of Virginia Tech Libraries.  Information about Birds of America is available from the National Audubon Society, online at  Also, a list of the Birds of America plates in numerical order, by volume, is available from the University of Pittsburgh, online at  Virginia Water Radio thanks Virginia Tech Libraries' Special Collections for permission to take photos from their copy of Birds of America and for their assistance.


Used for Audio

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, “All About Birds,” online at

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology and American Ornithologists’ Union, “Birds of North America/Red-winged Blackbird,” online at (subscription required).

George M. Linz, editor, Management of North American Blackbirds (proceedings of a special symposium of the Wildlife Society’s 9th Annual Conference, September 27, 2002, Bismarck, North Dakota); available online at

Alice Jane Lippson and Robert L. Lippson, Life in the Chesapeake Bay, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Md. (2006).

National Sunflower Association page on blackbirds, at

Chandler S. Robbins et al., A Guide to Field Identification of Birds of North America, St. Martin’s Press, New York, N.Y. (2001).

Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, “Fish and Wildlife Information Service,” online at

For More Information about Birds
Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, “Merlin Photo ID.”  The application for mobile devices allows users to submit a bird photograph to get identification of the bird.  Information is available online at

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology and the Audubon Society, “eBird,” online at  Here you can find locations of species observations made by contributors, and you can sign up to contribute your own observations.

Virginia Society of Ornithology: online at  The Society is non-profit organization dedicated to the study, conservation, and enjoyment of birds in the Commonwealth.

Xeno-canto Foundation Web site at   The site provides bird songs from around the world.


All Water Radio episodes are listed by category at the Index link above (  See specifically the “Birds” subject category.

The following episodes also have some connection to Red-winged Blackbirds:
EP118 – 7/9/12 – A Summertime Virginia Sampler of Birds around Water;
EP206 – 3/14/14 – A Spring Serenade;
EP259 – 3/30/15 – Red-winged Blackbird Research Follows Connections among Hormones, Avian Malaria, Aquatic Habitats, and Mercury;
EP308 – 3/21/16 – Treating Spring Fever with Water, Featuring “Until the Summer Comes” by The Steel Wheels;
EP309 - 3/28/16 – A Pondside Temperature Tale (on temperature regulation by animals).


The episode may help with Virginia 2013 Music SOLs at various grade levels that call for “examining the relationship of music to the other fine arts and other fields of knowledge.”

This episode may also help with the following Virginia 2010 Science SOLs:

Grades K-6 Earth Resources Theme
4.9 - Va. natural resources, including watersheds, water resources, and organisms.

Grades K-6 Life Processes Theme
3.4 - behavioral and physiological adaptations.

Grades K-6 Living Systems Theme
4.5 - ecosystem interactions and human influences on ecosystem.
6.7 - natural processes and human interactions that affect watershed systems; Va. watersheds, water bodies, and wetlands; and water monitoring.

Life Science Course
LS.4 - organisms’ classification based on features.
LS.8 - community and population interactions, including food webs, niches, symbiotic relationships.
LS.11 - relationships between ecosystem dynamics and human activity.

Biology Course
BIO.8 - dynamic equilibria and interactions within populations, communities, and ecosystems; including nutrient cycling, succession, effects of natural events and human activities, and analysis of the flora, fauna, and microorganisms of Virginia ecosystems.

Virginia’s SOLs are available from the Virginia Department of Education, online at