Don Torino’s Life in the Meadowlands: Not Just a Red-winged Blackbird

I often am reminded of this story when spring arrives in the Meadowlands, so my apologies if you have heard this story before. But since I am a senior citizen I get to tell it as much as I want.

Many years ago I was on a bird walk with a group of people from a local nature group when suddenly a striking black bird with brilliant red markings shot by us like a Ferrari with wings. The leader barely looked up until someone asked “What was that?”

“Oh that?” the leader answered back flippantly. “Just a Red-winged Blackbird.” Just a Red-winged Blackbird? How could someone speak so off handedly about such a magnificent bird that has meant so much to me?

Never mind that the leader failed to take a second or two to tell everyone what that wonderful bird was. “Just a Red-winged Blackbird?” Was I the only person that cared about the “Spirit of the Marsh” as the Native Americans called it.  I felt slighted in some way. After all the Red-winged Blackbird was a “special bird.” Especially if you happen to have grown up in the Meadowlands like me.

The Red-wing is one of the first birds to return back to its breeding ground in the Meadowlands in late winter. Beginning in February we kids would watch closely out the school bus windows  to see who could spot the first male Red-wing clinging to the Phragmites, displaying his beautiful red epaulets for the world to see.

A silent sigh of relief would come upon us once they successfully made their yearly return to our Meadowlands. We knew no matter how bad the winter was, no matter what was going on in school or the world around us, spring was not far behind, and as a result things in one way or another would get better real soon. The Red-wings were finally back!

Years later I would continue the tradition of looking for the first Red-winged Blackbird of spring when I drove my two boys to school. “There’s one! Right there!” They would yell out from the back seat of the car, Sure enough, there it was, and all things were right in the world, at least for today.

The male Red-winged Blackbird is dressed very cool with its sleek black feathers highlighted by the bright yellow and red chevrons. They are also big time philanderers and have many female mates, sometimes 15 or more. The female looks nothing like the male and is often mistaken for a large sparrow even by experienced birders.  Male Red-winged Blackbirds ferociously defend their territories during the breeding season, chasing other males and anything else that may invade their personal space.

Red-winged Blackbirds can be found in wetlands and nest around lakes, ponds and rivers, and of course all over our Meadowlands. Their song may not be equal to some other birds’ more musical calls of the forest, but I do adore their distinct sounds as they fills the air of the Meadowlands like a spirit of the marshlands.

Ernie Jardine, author of the book, “Bird Song Defined Decoded Describe,” talked to me about their call.  The Red-winged Blackbird’s  sound is as readily recognizable as their rather distinct appearance. Most people know the harsh, raspy trill of the Red-winged Blackbird, usually pulsing forth from the reeds of a nearby marsh, or from a small tree overhead. Often described as “CON-KA-REE,” each note higher than the last, it is this final higher trill that characterizes the song. It is louder, longer and more demonstrative than its sometimes squeaky, more abrupt introductory notes.

A friend tells me that trying to choose your favorite bird is like trying to pick your favorite grandchild. It just can’t be done. But to this day when asked what my favorite bird is my answer always is still the Red-winged Blackbird.

Since time immemorial and again this year the Red-winged Blackbird has returned, steadfast and unending, faithful and unceasing. The birds now fill the meadows battling for nesting places like they have for eons. Again this year the birds will bring on the next generation, needing nothing more than a place to call home, none better than our New Jersey Meadowlands.

And again this season, like it has for many years, my spirit was revitalized and my heart once again overjoyed when I saw my first Red-wings of the year.

My hope is that everyone finds your own special bird that renews your soul and warms your heart like the Red-winged Blackbird does mine .


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  1. Pingback: Spirit Animal – Journal

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