Did you know there is more than one “blackbird”? The common Brewer’s Blackbird seen in parking lots and backyards is one, but there are two others that are closely related: Tricolored Blackbird and the Red-winged Blackbird. These two are more similar in appearance than different.
The tricolored blackbird adult male is glossy black and in sunlight you will see an iridescent blue-green sheen. The females are dark brown with gray and brown streaks. Juveniles look very similar to adult females. What makes the males stand out, however, is the epaulet, or shoulder patch, that is orange-red and tipped with white. The red-winged blackbird has a red-orange epaulet tipped with yellow. That tiny difference helps to distinguish these two birds.
The tricolored blackbird is a medium sized songbird with narrow pointed wings. They range from 7 to 9.5 inches in length. Tricolors have a more pointed wing profile than the red-winged blackbirds and that difference is another clue in identification. They are common in Southern California and in the Central Valley and are found in 46 counties in California. There are small populations in Nevada, Oregon and Baja California, but the majority of the population is in California.
Tricolored blackbirds nest closely together, sometimes only one or two feet apart. Nesting season may find as many as 50,000 tricolored blackbirds in a 10-acre field or wetland. Males fluff their feathers and lift the leading edge of the wing to show off the colorful shoulder patches and sing to attract mates.
Nests are placed in marsh land in cattails, bulrushes or at the edge of the water. The nest is an open cup, secured to standing vegetation and made of grass, leaves, rootlets and lined with soft grass and usually has four eggs. The female does most of the feeding but both participate. Young fledge between 11 and 14 days after hatching.
Tricolors favor insects and seeds. In summer they consume caterpillars, beetles, grasshoppers and some spiders. Then in fall and winter, they switch to seeds of grasses and weeds and waste grain. They forage while walking and occasionally in shrubs and trees. Tricolors will mix with other blackbirds, brown-headed cowbirds and European starlings while foraging outside of the breeding season.
The population has declined from the 19th century when the population may have been several million to around 145,000 today. The population continues to decline due to loss of marsh land and foraging habitats. Tricolored blackbirds nest in some agricultural lands and the young may not leave the nest before harvesting begins which will destroy the nests and young birds. The Tricolored Blackbird Conservation Plan is working with farmers, agricultural agencies, governmental agencies, researchers and conservation organizations to increase populations. Their goals are to protect habitat, study the species’ life history, monitor and document population trends and to educate public and private landowners to build support for conservation.
Tri County Wildlife Care, a local nonprofit started in 1994, is dedicated to the rescue and rehabilitation of our native wildlife and helping our community live in balance with wildlife. They envision a world where wildlife and people thrive together. For more information call (209) 283-3245, or visit pawspartners.org.