Crawlies with Cri: Tricolored blackbird

Tricolored blackbird (Agelaius tricolor)

This week’s crawly probably looks quite familiar at a glance. Look again though. There are two different species of bird in our nifty collage photo.
It’s highly likely you are familiar with the top bird. Heck, this time of year you probably see them daily.
The bottom bird is this week’s crawly. Meet the tricolored blackbird (Agelaius tricolor).
While the rare tricolored are closely related to the much-more-common red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) there are as many differences as similarities.
Let’s start with numbers. Red-winged blackbirds can be found throughout North America and are one of the most abundant birds around.
Tricolored blackbirds can be found in central California and here and there in Oregon and Washington. There are approximately 219,000 living tricoloreds right now.
To say we are lucky to have them in our area is an understatement. They were spotted as recently as April 2024 near Table Rocks and there are several more historical sightings recorded from Sams Valley down to Ashland along Hwy. 62.
Your best chance to see a tricolored is to head over to the Klamath Wildlife Refuge (where our pictured blackbirds were sighted). Sightings there are more consistent.
That said, spotting a tricolored blackbird among their red-winged cousins is like looking for a needle in a pile of needles.
If you look sharp, there are distinct differences. Tricolored are an inkier black and their red wing patch is more cherry red than red-orange. They also have only a single bar under their red patch and those feathers are pure white.
Red-winged have red, then yellow then off-white wing markings and are a warmer black in color.
If you have sharp ears, it’s easier to hear tricolored among red-winged. Then you can narrow your visual search. Red-winged have the classic “conk-a-ree” call; they got the better singing voice for sure! Tricoloreds have a squeaky “reeeeeeeeeee” with maybe a little “chirp” at the end. You can listen to the tricolored call at: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Tricolored_Blackbird/sounds.
Tricolored blackbirds don’t just hang with their red-winged cousins. They’ll also happily flock around with other blackbirds – such as yellow-headed and Brewer’s – as well as with starlings and cowbirds.
When it comes to breeding and nesting, tricoloreds are into that communal life. They’ll form huge nesting colonies whereas red-winged blackbirds will only form groups from a few to a maximum of 15 semi-close nests.
Male red-winged blackbirds are far more territorial than tricolored blackbirds.
Not so fun fact: The tricolored population has declined over 50% since 1970 due in part to loss of wetlands to agriculture and urban construction along with wetlands water being diverted for other uses in California. Additional nesting areas have been lost to fields being converted to orchards and vineyards.
Prior to 1970 tricolored blackbirds would have communal nesting areas with up to 300,000 individuals – a single nesting community then had more than the total living population of tricoloreds now.
Tricolored blackbirds are under consideration for the California Endangered Species list.
Historically tricoloreds would form nesting colonies in wetlands; recently they have begun nesting in Himalayan blackberry near stock ponds or irrigated pastures. You can see why they have been spotted in our area – we have lots of blackberries, ponds and pastures for them to enjoy.
Tricolored blackbirds may eat some livestock grain as a dietary supplement, but their preferred food is arthropods, and they are classified as insectivores. They munch down a lot of grasshoppers, beetles, weevils, caterpillars and snails. Their free pest control services are easily worth their weight in a bit of stolen seed.