Birds of America
By John James Audubon, F. R. SS. L. & E.
THE RED-WINGED STARLING, OR RED-SHOULDERED MARSH BLACKBIRD.
[Red-winged Blackbird (see also Crimson-winged Troopial).]
AGELAIUS PHOENICEUS, Linn.
PLATE CCXVI.--MALE, FEMALE, and YOUNG MALE.
If the name of Starling has been given to this well-known species, with the
view of assimilating it to the European bird of that name, it can only have been
on account of the numbers of individuals that associate together, for in every
other respect it is as distinct from the true Starlings as a Common Crow. But
without speaking particularly of generic or specific affinities, I shall here
content myself with giving you, kind reader, an account of the habits of this
The Marsh Blackbird is so well known as being a bird of the most nefarious
propensities, that in the United States one can hardly mention its name, without
hearing such an account of its pilferings as might induce the young student of
nature to conceive that it had been created for the purpose of annoying the
farmer. That it destroys an astonishing quantity of corn, rice, and other kinds
of grain, cannot be denied; but that before it commences its ravages, it has
proved highly serviceable to the crops, is equally certain.
As soon as spring makes its appearance, almost all the Redwings leave the
Southern States, in small detached and straggling flocks, the males leading the
way in full song, as if to invite the females to follow. Prodigious numbers
make their appearance in the Eastern Districts, as winter recedes, and are often
seen while piles of drifted snow still remain along the roads, under shelter of
the fences. They frequently alight on trees of moderate size, spread their
tail, swell out their plumage, and utter their clear and not unmusical notes,
particularly in the early morning, before their departure from the neighbourhood
of the places in which they have roosted; for their migrations, you must know,
are performed entirely during the day.
Their food at this season is almost exclusively composed of grubs, worms,
caterpillars, and different sorts of coleopterous insects, which they procure by
searching with great industry, in the meadows, the orchards, or the newly
ploughed fields, walking with a graceful step, but much quicker than either of
their relatives, the Purple Grakle or the Boat-tail of the Southern States. The
millions of insects which the Redwings destroy at this early season, are, in my
opinion, a full equivalent for the corn which they eat at another period; and
for this reason, the farmers do not molest them in spring, when they resort to
the fields in immense numbers. They then follow the ploughman, in company with
the Crow Blackbird, and as if aware of the benefit which they are conferring, do
not seem to regard him with apprehension.
The females being all arrived, the pairing season at once commences.
Several males are seen flying in pursuit of one, until, becoming fatigued, she
alights, receives the addresses of her suitors, and soon makes a choice that
establishes her the consort of one of them. The "happy couple" immediately
retire from the view of the crowds around them, and seek along the margins of
some sequestered pond or damp meadow, for a place in which to form their nest.
An alder bush or a thick tuft of rank weeds answer equally well, and in such
places a quantity of coarse dried weeds is deposited by them, to form the
exterior of the fabric which is to receive the eggs. The nest is lined with
fine grasses, and, in some instances, with horse-hair. The eggs are from four
to six in number, of a regular oval form, light blue, sparsely spotted with
Now is the time, good-natured reader, to see and admire the courage and
fidelity of the male, whilst assiduously watching over his beloved mate. He
dives headlong towards every intruder that approaches his nest, vociferating his
fears and maledictions with great vehemence, passing at times within a few yards
of the person who has disturbed his peace, or alighting on a twig close to his
nest, and uttering a plaintive note, which might well prevent any other than a
mischievous person from interfering with the hopes and happiness of the mated
The eggs are hatched, and the first brood has taken flight. The young soon
after associate with thousands of other striplings, and shift for themselves,
whilst the parent birds raise a second family. The first brood comes abroad
about the beginning of June, the second in the beginning of August. At this
latter period, the corn in the Middle Districts has already acquired
considerable consistence, and the congregated Redwings fall upon the fields in
such astonishing numbers as to seem capable of completely veiling them under the
shade of their wings. The husbandman, anxious to preserve as much of his corn
as he can, for his own use or for market, pursues every possible method of
annoyance or destruction. But his ingenuity is almost exerted in vain. The
Redwings heed not his efforts further than to remove, after each report of his
gun, from one portion of the field to another. All the scarecrows that he may
choose to place about his grounds are merely regarded by the birds as so many
observatories, on which they occasionally alight.
The corn becoming too hard for their bills, they now leave the fields, and
resort to the meadows and the margins of streams thickly overgrown with the wild
oat and other grasses, upon the seeds of which they feed with great avidity
during the autumnal and winter months. They then associate partially with
Reed-birds, Grakles, and Cow-pen Buntings, and are seen to move from the Eastern
to the Southern Districts, in such immense and thick flocks as almost to cloud
The havoc made amongst them is scarcely credible. I have heard that
upwards of fifty have been killed at a shot, and am the more inclined to believe
such accounts as I have myself shot hundreds in the course of an afternoon,
killing from ten to fifteen at every discharge. Whilst travelling in different
parts of the Southern States, during the latter part of autumn, I have often
seen the fences, trees and fields so strewed with these birds, as to make me
believe their number fully equal to that of the falling leaves of the trees in
the places traversed by me.
Towards evening they alight in the marshes by millions, in compact bodies,
settle on the reeds and rushes close above the water, and remain during the
night, unless disturbed by the gunners. When this happens, they rise all of a
sudden, and perform various evolutions in the air, now gliding low over the
rushes, and again wheeling high above them, preserving silence for awhile, but
finally diving suddenly to the spot formerly chosen, and commencing a general
chuckling noise, after which they remain quiet during the rest of the night.
Different species of Hawks derive their principal sustenance from them at
this season. The Pigeon Hawk is an adept in picking the fattest from their
crowded flocks; and while they are in the Southern States, where millions of
them spend the winter, the Hen-harriers are seen continually hovering over them,
and picking up the stragglers.
The Marsh Blackbird is easily kept in confinement, and sings there with as
much vigour as when at full liberty. It is kept in good order with rice, wheat,
or any other small grain. Attempts have been made to induce these birds to
breed in confinement, but in as far as I have been able to ascertain, have
failed. As an article of food, they are little better than the Starling of
Europe, or the Crow Blackbird of the United States, although many are eaten and
thought good by the country people, who make pot-pies of them.
The dispersion of this bird over the whole of the United States, the Fur
Countries beyond the limits of the inhabitation of the human species, the great
western plains, the Rocky Mountains, and even the shores of the Columbia river,
where it was procured by Mr. TOWNSEND, forms a remarkable part of its history.
Our surprise becomes greatly increased by the knowledge of its breeding in great
numbers in every part of this vast extent. I found the Islands about Galveston
Bay most plentifully supplied with it, as well as the grassy margins of the
pools and bayous of the mainland, where it was seen breeding, sometimes within a
few yards of houses. The same occurred on the Florida Keys. The only part of
the country visited by me in which I found it wanting is Labrador, although it
is known to breed in some portions of the interior of Newfoundland. In many
instances I found it nestling in the Floridas on Mangroves and low bushes, in
the vicinity of the nests of Cormorants and our smaller Herons, and even
sometimes in the midst of them.
In speaking of this species, Dr. RICHARDSON mentions a circumstance
relative to its habits of which I was not aware. "On its first arrival (the
beginning of May) it feeds on grubs; but as soon as the grain sown in the
vicinity of the trading posts begins to germinate, it associates itself with
Saffron-headed Maize-birds and Boat-tails (Common Crow Blackbird), and is
occupied the whole day in tearing up and devouring the sprouting plants,
returning to the work of devastation as often as driven away." He states that
it does not pass the 57th parallel.
The attachment of this bird to the locality which it has selected for
breeding, is illustrated by the following note of my friend Dr. THOMAS M. BREWER
of Boston. "A pair of these birds constructed a nest in a small clump of bushes
near a brook in Roxbury, and deposited four eggs, which were taken away. They
then built a nest within a foot of the first, in which the same number of eggs
was laid, and in like manner abstracted. Undeterred by this want of success,
they again constructed a nest in the same clump, and this time without
molestation. This fact is perhaps trivial in itself, but the same can hardly be
told of any other species." The eggs measure in length seven-eighths and
three-fourths, and in breadth five and a half eighths.
At Galveston I observed flocks of female Red-winged Starlings congregated,
and to all appearance migrating. This shews that migration in birds is far from
being regular, but is dependent on many accidental circumstances, such as
difference of temperature at certain seasons when they are supposed usually to
move, or storms, or want of proper food.
Dr. BACHMAN writes thus to me:--"You speak of the Red-winged Starlings as
nearly all proceeding to the coast to breed. They breed very abundantly in all
the low marshy grounds of Carolina, and in all the intermediate places to the
Northern States. The young birds in autumn that I have procured from the young
guinea-corn and rice-fields were fat, and in taste fully equal to the Robin. I
am not aware, that you have mentioned that, when a year old, though not
full-plumaged, they breed like those that are older. Indeed, nearly all our
birds breed when a year old, however imperfect their plumage; I cannot recollect
any species that does not."
I have represented a male and a female in the adult state, and a male in
the first spring, and have placed them on the branch of a water maple, these
birds being fond of alighting on trees of that kind, in early spring, to pick up
the insects that frequent the blossoms. This tree is found dispersed throughout
the United States, and grows, as its name indicates, in the immediate vicinity
of water. Its wood is soft, and is hardly used for any other purpose than that
of being converted into common domestic utensils.
RED-WINGED STARLING, Sturnus praedatorius, Wils. Amer. Orn.,
vol. iv.p. 30.
ICTERUS PHOENICEUS, Bonap. Syn., p. 52.
AGELAIUS PHOENICEUS, Red-winged Maize-bird,
Swains. and Rich. F. Bor. Amer., vol. ii. p. 280.
RED-WINGED BLACKBIRD, Icterus phoeniceus, Nutt. Man., vol. i. p. 169.
RED-WINGED STARLING or MARSH BLACKBIRD, Aud. Orn. Biog., vol. i. p. 348;
vol. v. p. 487.
Tail considerably rounded. Male with the plumage glossy black, the smaller
wing-coverts scarlet, their first or posterior row buff-coloured, at the tip
whitish. Female much smaller, with the upper parts dark brown, the feathers
edged with light brown; some of the smaller wing coverts tinged with red; wings
and tail blackish-brown, the feathers margined with brownish-red, the first row
of small coverts and secondary coverts narrowly tipped with whitish; a
yellowish-brown band over the eye; lower parts longitudinally streaked with
dusky and whitish, the fore neck strongly tinged with dull carmine. Young
similar to the female, but without red on the small wing-coverts or throat, the
latter part with the sides of the head being pale yellowish-brown.
Male, 9, 14. Female, 7 1/2.
Breeds from Texas throughout the United States, and northward to the
Saskatchewan. Vast numbers spend the winter in the Southern and Western States.
In a male preserved in spirits, the palate ascends rapidly, and is in the
middle concave, with two very prominent papillate ridges, which, in meeting,
form a large soft prominence, anteriorly of which the roof of the mouth is
nearly flat, with a median and two lateral ridges. The posterior aperture of
the nares is oblongo-linear, with its margins papillate. The lower mandible is
deeply concave. The tongue is 9 twelfths long, higher than broad, sagittate and
papillate at the base, grooved above, tapering to a horny flattened, slightly
emarginate tip. The oesophagus,
[a b c d e],
is 3 1/4 inches long, forming a
sac, [b c], the width of which at the commencement is 7 1/2 twelfths, soon after
4 1/2 twelfths, toward the lower part of the neck 5 1/2 twelfths, but on
entering the thorax contracting to 3 1/2 twelfths; the proventriculus, [d e],
4 1/2 twelfths in width. The stomach, [e f g], is broadly elliptical, 9
twelfths long, 7 1/2 twelfths wide, its lateral muscles well developed; the
epithelium thin, but dense, and of a reddish-brown colour. The contents of the
stomach are remains of coleopterous insects and seeds. The duodenum, [g h i],
curves in the usual manner at the distance of 1 1/4 inches; the entire length of
the intestine is 10 inches, its width from 2 twelfths to 1 1/2 twelfths; the
coeca 2 twelfths long, 1/2 twelfth wide, 1 inch distant from the extremity; the
rectum gradually dilates into an oblong cloaca, 5 twelfths in width.
THE RED MAPLE OR SWAMP MAPLE.
ACER RUBRUM, Willd., Sp. Pl., vol. iv. p. 984.
Pursh, Flor. Amer., vol. i. p. 266.
Mich. Abr. Forest. de l'Amer. Sept., vol. ii. p. 210, p. 14.
--OCTANDRIA MONOGYNIA, Linn.--ACERINAE, Juss.