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The Real Harbingers Of Spring: Red-Winged Blackbirds

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Becky Matsubara
/
Wikimedia Commons
A red-winged blackbird.

Good weather in early March can leave some Milwaukeeans skeptical as memories of April and May winter storms creep in the back of their mind.

Humans are notoriously not that great at being able to sense weather patterns and turning to the likes of Punxsutawney Phil’s shadow doesn’t offer much help in knowing how many more weeks of winter lie ahead.

But there is one animal whose return to Milwaukee, according to Tim Vargo from the Urban Ecology Center, signals the arrival of spring — the red-winged blackbird.

“I think if you’d ask most people what bird you associate with spring, a lot of people would say the robin and the goose,” he says.

But those species are no longer accurate indicators that winter has come to an end. “Through climate change and urbanization, both geese and robins now are permanent residents, you can see them any day of any given year,” he says.

Vargo says red-winged blackbirds will always leave for the winter and return in the spring. Their call also carries quite far and is distinct, making them a perfect match for Milwaukee’s bird watching community.

He describes the call as a shrill voice yelling, “VOTE-FOR-ME!”

The Real Harbingers Of Spring: Red-Winged Blackbirds
The distinct calls of the red-winged blackbird, recorded at Riverside Park and the Mequon Nature Preserve.

Ethan Bott is a bird watching guide at the Urban Ecology Center and says the center holds a competition each year for who can spot the first red-winged blackbird.

“It’s really an exciting moment for birders to hear their first red-wing blackbird of the year,” he says.

Vargo says that bird watching is both a visual and auditory experience, as watchers often hear birds before they can see them. He says you can find birds in any part of Milwaukee; all you have to do is listen.

“If you were magically transported to anywhere in the city within a half hour on any day of the year, you can probably find at least ten birds,” he says. “Milwaukee’s blessed with this wonderful park system and parkways and the three rivers, so no matter where you are, you’re probably not too far.”

If you're wondering how you can help support a thriving bird community, Vargo has some suggestions. 

"The number one thing you could do based on bird mortality is to buy habitat and preserve habitat...but most of us can't do that," he says.

But even if you have a postage stamp-sized yard in the middle of the city, Vargo says planting native plants can have a marked impact on increasing the insect community, which serves as a natural source of food for birds. 

Speaking of food, you can do your part by preventing birds from becoming food. "After habitat loss, the number one cause of mortality is cats. So keeping your cats indoors is huge," he says.

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Ben Binversie is a producer with WUWM's Lake Effect program. He graduated from Grinnell College with a history major and policy studies concentration.
Jack Hurbanis started as the WUWM Digital Intern in January 2020, transitioning to Assistant Digital Producer in July.