Barry Kent MacKayArt by Barry Kent MacKay
Art and Photo Presentation

In this section are copies of original works of art. All of them are dedicated to helping us live according to unconditional love and compassion, which is the foundation of our peaceful means of bringing true and lasting peace to all of God's creatures, whether they are human beings or other animals.

Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)

Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)
(Artwork - 093)
Red-winged Blackbird
(Agelaius phoeniceus)

This is a simple vignette painting of one of the most common bird species in North America, the Red-winged Blackbird, commonly referred to as the “Red-wing”.

The latter is also the name of a Eurasian thrush species, however, since the two species are each on a different continent, there should be little confusion.

I was commissioned to paint a simple vignette (defined as just the subject, with little or no background) of a songbird of my choice that a visitor from overseas might see while here. The Blue Jay was suggested, but I had just finished observing some Red-winged Blackbirds, and thought that perhaps next to the American Robin, and perhaps the Black-capped Chickadee or American Goldfinch, this would be the species new to such a visitor that would most likely be seen and which perhaps has the most startling appearance (although were it not for the fact that I am planning a more detailed full painting of the species, my first choice would be the Northern Cardinal…they are quite common, now, in the urban and suburban regions here in southern Ontario).

Anyway, the Red-winged Blackbird is found in every one of the provinces and territories from about the tree line south, and all of the mainland 49 U.S. states, as a breeding species, and is certainly one of our most abundant and familiar birds. They are also migratory, and birds from the northern part of their range migrate south (a few may spend the winter here) each fall, so their numbers tend to get concentrated in the U.S., especially the more southern states in the east, but they winter further north in the west.

These wintering flocks often join up with other members of the same, strictly Western Hemisphere family, the Icterids, which includes a variety of songbird species collectively called “blackbirds”, along with the introduced Common Starling (Sturnus vulgaris).

Unfortunately such flocks, often numbering many thousands of birds, will sometimes descend on farmers’ crops, or in feedlots where unfortunate cattle about to be slaughtered are fed high-nutriment corn, soy and other food to make them fatter before they are killed to be marketed. The blackbird flocks are too often “gotten rid of” by lethal culling, sometimes using poison.

Red-winged Blackbirds were featured in the news a couple of years ago as the species that fell out of the sky during the night during fireworks celebrations, and were found dead, literally covering the ground. While everything from lightning and fireworks to UFOs were blamed, it appears that in some of these instances, such as one that happened a couple of years ago in mid-summer in New Jersey, farmers poisoned the birds.

On a happier note, these birds are seen as harbingers of spring where I live, and each year as I grow weary of the cold, grey winter climate, I look forward to hearing the distinctive call of the Red-winged Blackbird. They arrive just as the ice is starting to break up. They have a song that consists of burbled beginning notes, followed by a then, nasal, drawn-out note, and to me it invariably evokes fond memories of the arrival of spring. The males utter this song from a high perch, usually, or on their nesting territory, within cattail marshes, their favourite nesting habitat, although they nest in many locations. In full display they puff out the scarlet feathers of their lesser-wing-patches, called epaulets in reference to the epaulets on the shoulders of military and police uniforms, and spread their tails and seem to really put a lot of energy into the call.

They maintain “harems” of several females, but the females will often mate with other males, when their “real” mate is not looking.

The females and immature plumages are very different in appearance, being heavily streaked, and often mistaken for an entirely different species. Also females are a little smaller than the males.

As might be thought, given their wide range they have many different subspecies, or geographic variations that show minor differences in size, colour and voice, most of which would not be distinctive enough to be noticeable in the field

But there are birds from the coastal and central California region which lack the line of pale buff or yellowish-buff coloured middle wing coverts that are so distinctive in our eastern birds, and so the wings are just black and red. They are colloquially known as “bicolored blackbirds”.

The Red-winged Blackbird was done approximately life size with gouache watercolour on paper; the Tricolored Blackbird was done approximately life size in acrylics on coloured illustration board.

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Copyright © Barry Kent MacKay
Barry describes himself as a Canadian artist/writer/naturalist.
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