Ornithological Biography/Volume 1/Red-winged Starling

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Ornithological Biography by John James Audubon
The Red-winged Starling, or Marsh Blackbird
67 Red-winged Starling or Marsh Blackbird.jpg

THE RED-WINGED STARLING, OR MARSH BLACKBIRD.

Icterus phœniceus, Daud.

PLATE LXVII. Male in different states, Female and Young.


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—a task which I reserve for another occasion—I shall here content myself with giving you, kind reader, an account of the habits of this bird.

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 Red-wings 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 dusky.

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 Redwings.

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 Red-wings 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 the 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 air.

The havock 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 that 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 a while, 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.

I have represented a male and a female in the adult state, a male in the first spring, and a young bird, 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.


Icterus phœniceus, Ch. Bonaparte, Synops. of Birds of the United States, p. 52.

Oriolus phœniceus, Linn. Syst. Nat. vol. i. p. 161.—Lath. Ind. Ornith. vol. i. p. 178.

Red-winged Starling, Sturnus prædatorius, Wils. Amer. Ornith. vol. iv. p. 30. Pl. 30. Male and Female.

Red-winged Oriole, Lath. Synops. vol. ii. p. 428.


Male in complete plumage. Plate LXVII. Fig. 1.

Bill conical, rather slender, longish, compressed, nearly straight, very acute, with inflected acute margins; upper mandible obtuse above, encroaching on the forehead, lower broadly obtuse beneath; gap-line deflected at the base. Nostrils oval, basal. Head and neck of ordinary size. Body full. Feet of ordinary length; tarsus a little longer than the middle toe; inner toe little shorter than the outer; claws arched, acute, compressed, that of the hind toe twice the size of the rest.

Plumage soft, blended, glossy. Wings of ordinary length, the second and third quills longest. Tail rather long, rounded, of twelve rounded feathers.

Bill and feet black. Iris dark brown. The general colour of the plumage is glossy black; the lesser wing-coverts scarlet, their lower row bright yellow.

Length 9 inches, extent of wings 14; bill along the ridge 1112, along the gap 1.


Male, the first spring. Plate LXVII. Fig. 2.

Bill, eyes and feet, as in the adult male. The general colour of the upper parts is dark-brown, the feathers edged with lighter. The shoulder is scarlet, but of a lighter tint; the second row of wing-coverts broadly margined with brownish-white; the larger coverts and quills margined with reddish-white. Quills and tail brownish-black. The under parts are dark greyish-brown, spotted with black.


Adult Female. Plate LXVII. Fig. 3.

The adult female resembles the male of the first spring in colouring. The bill is lighter; there is a broad streak of pale brown from the bill over each eye; the wing-coverts are less broadly margined, and the lesser wing-coverts are merely tinged with red. The size is greatly inferior to that of the adult male, the length being only 7+12 inches.


Young Bird. Plate LXVII. Fig. 4.

The young is similar to the female, lighter on the cheeks and throat, and having merely a slight tinge of red on the lesser wing-coverts.




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, Pl. 14.—Octandria Monogynia, Linn. Acerinæ, Juss.


This species having been represented in Plate LXVII in seed, has already been described at p. 287.