The other day while walking on the north end of Washington Park, a red-winged blackbird flew right in front of me. He grabbed an insect from the trail and disappeared into the cattails just yards …
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The other day while walking on the north end of Washington Park, a red-winged blackbird flew right in front of me. He grabbed an insect from the trail and disappeared into the cattails just yards away. Being so close I was able to admire his striking appearance: bright red and yellow epaulettes against a shiny black body. My guess is he was finding food for his offspring nesting in the cattails. As with many song birds, blackbirds feed their young a diet of insects. Insects are little protein packets that ensure the fledglings grow quickly. The female red-wing was hidden in the cattails, guarding her nest and babies. Her more muted appearance of brown and black streaks allows her to sit on her nest undetected. The females are the sole creators of their tightly woven nests, tucked in among the cattails. The females pick the males based on who has the best territory. Usually the males will arrive first in the spring to claim their turf. They establish their territory by displaying their bright epaulettes and singing their konk-a-ree song. If successful, a male will attract several females.
The male red-winged blackbird is striking, with its red and yellow wing markings. The female is harder to spot, because of her more muted brown coloring, and because she generally remains closer to the nest deep within the patches of cattails.
Often the best territory for a blackbird includes a dense patch of cattails. Not only will the cattails help conceal their nests, they will also provide habitat for a variety of insects. We can all identify cattails, those shoreline plants that sport a corndog-shaped seed head. But most of us don’t realize the many benefits this plant performs. Cattails and other shoreline plants filter runoff from surrounding land. The less nutrients and mud washing into lakes and streams surrounded by these plants, the clearer and healthier the water will be for a variety of animals and plants. Cattails also prevent erosion of shorelines as their rhizomes (like an iris’s root system) hold the soil in place.
Blackbirds aren’t the only ones to find shelter in cattails. Many ducks and geese nest in them. A variety of songbirds use the fluff from the seed head to line their nests. Muskrats eat the rhizomes that provide protein and carbohydrates. In fact, many human cultures around the world have used this plant for centuries. The young shoots and roots are edible. The dried leaves can be woven to make roofs, furniture and mats. The vegetation can even be ingested for medicinal purposes.
Next time you’re out enjoying a walk by cattails, be it in a park or along a stream, see if you can’t spot a red-winged blackbird or one of the many other residents of this important community.
If you're interested in learning more about birds, check out the numerous programs offered by the Audubon Society of Greater Denver at: denveraudubon.org. Their many offerings include guided hikes in the metro area, including wildlife walks at Washington Park.
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