A Guest in the Nest

I always wondered what goes on inside a red-winged blackbird's nest

Surrounded by dozens of red-winged blackbird (RWB) nests in a roadside marsh abutting the property where I once lived just south of Newport — their lyrical voices permeating the atmosphere like a dawn-to-dusk orchestra of whistles, clicks and trilling melodies — I decided one springtime to try to discover what “unseen wonders” might be occurring in and around all those beautiful birds.

The life cycle of RWBs is much more intricate than most people might imagine, and thus difficult to track solely via eyeballs and optics. So one day I strapped an old camera to the end of a 12-foot telescoping boom pole, stuck the other end into the marsh mud a long reach away from a nest, pressed “record,” and walked away. When I retrieved the camera rig an hour later (when the mother-to-be left the nest on one of her periodic breaks), I discovered I had been lucky enough to record an egg in the process of hatching.

In setting up the camera I couldn’t see very well through the view screen in bright sunlight, so my aim and zoom settings weren’t perfect (making it appear in some shots that the camera was closer to the subject matter than it actually was), but on the whole, decent footage of numerous bird behaviors resulted. Following are a few of the things I would never have seen without the camera:

● Most notable was the incredible process a mother red-wing employs to extricate a new chick from its egg and prepare it for the world. She works fast and with pinpoint accuracy in a process that appears most delicate — until she unceremoniously dumps the new chick on its head. This mother disposes of the egg shell by eating the entire thing … other mothers were observed carrying the shell away. Operating with a level of precision that brain surgeons would envy, her moves as she deftly tweezes various birth-related residues away from the chick are easy to track and comprehend — until about 02:05 to 02:22, where I’m really not sure what she’s doing. I’m presently reaching out to experts to find out, and will post an update when I can.

● At 04:25 mom delivers dinner in the form of a gigantic dragonfly that — on the second attempt, with mom pushing and the chick gulping — they manage to squeeze down the tiny gullet, wings and all. Chicks are basically little digestion machines, ingesting an incredible array of local bugs and insects that would feel perfectly at home in a Star Wars sequel. Of course what goes into each chick, must come out — and at 04:15, you can see how mom handles that. Maintaining a clean nest is a priority to keep chicks healthy, and though humans would run screaming for Pampers, RWBs do have it easier than some birds. Cedar waxwings and other species that raise their chicks mainly on berries, for instance, must dispose of some very gooey waste on the spot, in a manner that I’ll leave to your imagination.

● Especially by comparison to the brilliant red epaulettes punctuating the jet-black beauty of male RWBs, females typically appear a dull, drab brown when viewed from afar, an observation shrugged off as necessary camouflage helpful during nesting. But at various points in the video above (03:45 in particular), the design and coloration of that camouflage are seen to be far richer than I had ever before suspected. Turns out, the females are beautiful in their own right, too.

● With my jury-rigged camera setup, I didn’t have the capacity to record over the several-week time span that RWB females can take to build their nests. But in several spots throughout the video above, it’s easy to see how the soundness of construction employed by these birds would make any engineer proud. Be prepared to press “pause” when you come upon nest close-ups (especially from about 02:40 on) to note the numerous tie-ins to support structures, different types of grasses used in different places for different purposes (but no mud), and the obvious weaving skills required. They may not take top honors for architectural design, per se, but RWBs certainly have the know-how to build solid nests that work — most often without anyone seeing them do it.

For more background on the wetland, plus revealing photos of the male’s role in chick rearing, click the following title to see more at “Red-Winged Wonders.”

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