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10 Birds Similar to Red-winged Blackbirds

birds similar to red-winged blackbirds
Male Red-winged Blackbird: Photo by Brad Imhoff

Introduction: Birds Similar to Red-winged Blackbirds

You’ve seen what surely must be a red-winged blackbird, right? The red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) is a distinctive North American bird known for its striking red and yellow shoulder patches, contrasted against a sleek black body in males, while females have a drabbier, streaky brown look. However, there are other birds similar to red-winged blackbirds that you should learn to identify and differentiate. In this article, we’ll introduce you to some similar looking birds, both in the United States and elsewhere, and teach you how to differentiate them from their similar-looking friends, the red-winged blackbird.

Birds That Look Similar to Male RWBs:

Tricolored Blackbird – Agelaius tricolor

  • Similarity: Undoubtedly the easiest bird to confuse for a RWB. These blackbirds look nearly identical to the Red-winged Blackbird but has a white border below its red shoulder patches. 
  • Behavior: Tricolored Blackbirds are social birds commonly observed in large, dense groups throughout the year. Unlike Red-winged Blackbirds, they nest closely together in colonies and frequently forage outside the colony’s vicinity. In the nonbreeding season, they mingle with flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds, Brewer’s Blackbirds, Brown-headed Cowbirds, and European Starlings.
  • Where to find them: They occur almost exclusively in California, so if you see a bird that looks like this outside of the Golden State, you’re probably seeing a RWB – but you never know, you might just have found an out-of-range tricolored blackbird!
  • Fun Fact: Of all passerines (perching birds) in North America, tricolored blackbirds form the largest breeding colonies. One colony observed in the 1930s spanned nearly 60 acres and included over a quarter of a million birds!

Red-shouldered Blackbird – Agelaius assimilis

  • Similarity: Aptly named, their shoulders don red and yellow epaulets. These blackbirds were long considered to be an unusual subspecies of RWBs, but were split due to the fact that in this species, the females do not differ very much in appearance from the males, lacking only the yellow on their shoulders.
  • Behavior: The Red-shouldered Blackbird is endemic to the swamps of western Cuba and the Island of Youth, where it remains year-round, unlike other North American marsh-dwelling birds. Both male and female Red-shouldered Blackbirds equally feed their chicks, contrasting with the Red-winged Blackbird. They exhibit non-migratory behavior and monogamous breeding habits, unlike the polygynous Red-winged Blackbird. During pre-nesting periods, they sing and feed in pairs, with infrequent aggression. Their songs, resembling those of males, can be sung alone or in duets, often with males perched above females. Breeding occurs from April to August in marshy areas, with a diet comprising insects, seeds, and fruits.
  • Where to find them: These birds are endemic to Cuba’s Zapata Peninsula.
  • Fun Fact: Based on molecular evidence, red-shouldered blackbirds and RWBs are considered to be each other’s closest relatives, with tricolored blackbirds thought to be on an earlier branch of these related species.

Tawny-shouldered Blackbird – Agelaius humeralis

  • Similarity: The tawny-shouldered blackbird, with its distinct tawny or buff-colored shoulders, bears some resemblance to its close relatives in the blackbird family. Unlike other blackbirds (but similar to red-shouldered blackbirds), both males and females of this species showcase a pronounced contrast between their dark bodies and lighter shoulders, presenting a striking visual.
  • Behavior: The tawny-shouldered blackbirds breed from April to August, laying 3–4 greenish-white eggs with brown spots in cup-shaped nests lined with soft materials, typically placed in trees. Their diet consists of insects, seeds, nectar, fruit, and small lizards, and they inhabit subtropical or tropical dry shrubland, pastureland, and heavily degraded former forests.
  • Where to find them: These birds are native to Cuba and Hispaniola, where they inhabit open country spaces, grasslands, and agricultural areas, adapting well to habitats with human disturbance.
  • Fun Fact: The tawny-shouldered blackbird displays a peculiar nesting behavior, often opting to build its nests in dense thickets or even in sugarcane fields, a trait that helps in safeguarding their nests from potential predators and providing a unique adaptation to their habitat. 

Brewer’s Blackbird – Euphagus cyanocephalus

  • Similarity: The Brewer’s blackbird, exhibiting a sleek black (males) or dark brown (females) plumage, carries the signature characteristics of the blackbird family, but lack the colored shoulders. Males are particularly distinguished by their iridescent heads and glossy bodies, which gleam with a blue-green sheen in the right light, offering a striking visual contrast to their bright yellow eyes. 
  • Behavior: Brewer’s blackbirds forage on open ground, including parks and bustling streets. Their distinctive long legs contribute to a halting walk, with their heads jerking with each step, reminiscent of a chicken’s movements. When flying in flocks, they exhibit a rising and falling pattern. Upon landing, they may circle in a slow, fluttering flight before coming to rest.
  • Where to Find Them: These birds are quite adaptable and can be found across a wide range of habitats in North America. They are commonly spotted in open fields, parks, and farmlands where they can forage for insects and grains, often seen mingling in mixed flocks during the non-breeding season.
  • Fun Fact: These birds exhibit a fascinating behavioral trait called “gaping” where they use their strong jaw muscles to open their bills and probe into the ground to extract insects, showcasing their adaptability and resourcefulness in different environments.

Shiny Cowbird- Molothrus bonariensis

  • Similarity: The shiny cowbird, bearing a dark plumage, embodies the characteristic sleekness found in many members of the blackbird family. The males, in particular, are noted for their glossy, almost metallic sheen which varies from dark blue to black, while females possess a more subdued, brownish-gray appearance, maintaining the sleek profile that is a hallmark of their kind.
  • Behavior: Shiny cowbirds typically forage in groups, often alongside other blackbird species, primarily on the ground, where they search for seeds, grains, and insects. Male Shiny cowbirds sing a gurgling song and perform aerial or ground displays to attract females. These displays may also occur from perches in trees.
  • Where to Find Them: These adaptable birds have a wide range and can be spotted in various habitats including open fields, pastures, and even urban areas across Central and South America. 
  • Fun Fact: Shiny cowbirds are brood parasites, a reproductive strategy where they lay their eggs in the nests of other bird species, relying on these unwitting foster parents to raise their young. This fascinating behavior allows them to invest less in parental care, focusing their energy on producing a larger number of eggs, thus increasing their chances of passing on their genes. 

Screaming Cowbird – Molothrus rufoaxillaris

  • Similarity: The screaming cowbird, akin to its relatives in the cowbird family, sports a somewhat glossy, dark plumage, which stands as a visual marker of its genetic lineage. This bird shares several morphological characteristics with other cowbirds, including its sleek body and distinctive vocalizations.
  • Behavior: Screaming cowbirds exhibit similar behavior to shiny cowbirds, often foraging in groups and associating with other blackbird species. Their diet primarily consists of seeds, grains, and insects, which they search for on the ground. Male screaming cowbirds are known for their distinctive vocalizations, emitting loud and piercing calls, especially during the breeding season. Additionally, males may engage in aerial displays or perch-based behaviors to attract females and establish dominance within the group.
  • Where to Find Them: Predominantly found in South America, these birds prefer open or semi-open habitats where they can easily forage for food. Their habitat range includes grasslands, agricultural lands, and areas near human settlements, displaying a certain adaptability that aids their survival in varied environments.
  • Fun Fact: Their vocalizations are quite distinctive, with a variety of calls that can sometimes be loud and abrasive, hence the name.

Common Grackle – Quiscalus quiscula

  • Similarity: The common grackle is a notable member of the blackbird family, flaunting a distinctive iridescent sheen on its feathers, which can exhibit a range of colors from blue to purplish to green, depending on the light. This prominent feature, along with their sharp yellow eyes, sets them apart as a visually striking species within their family lineage.
  • Behavior: Common grackles are frequently seen in sizable gatherings, either flying together or searching for food on lawns and in farm fields. They walk confidently on their elongated legs, pecking at the ground for sustenance rather than scratching. At feeding stations, common grackles often assert dominance over smaller birds. While resting, they perch atop trees or telephone lines, emitting noisy chatter. Their flight is characterized by direct movements and stiff wingbeats.
  • Where to Find Them: These birds are versatile in terms of habitat, found across various environments in North America, from forests and marshes to urban and suburban areas. 
  • Fun Fact: Common grackles are known for their intelligence and problem-solving abilities. They have been observed using tools and demonstrating complex behaviors in the wild, a testament to their cognitive capabilities. 
  • Similarity: The bobolink stands out in the blackbird family with its unique and somewhat reverse sexual dimorphism: males exhibit a striking black-and-white plumage with a buffy nape during the breeding season, whereas females and non-breeding males sport a more subdued, sparrow-like appearance, much like RWBs.
  • Behavior: During spring, male bobolinks perform noticeable display flights close to grasslands, fluttering their wings while singing. At other times, they conceal themselves within tall grasses or brush, clinging to seed heads or foraging on the ground amidst the stems. Bobolinks commonly migrate in sizable flocks.
  • Where to Find Them: These birds mainly inhabit grasslands and meadows in North America during the breeding season, where they build nests on the ground in tall grasses. 
  • Fun Fact: Bobolinks embark on an incredible migratory journey each year, traveling over 12,000 miles round-trip from their breeding grounds in North America to their wintering habitats in South America. 

Birds That Look Similar to Female RWBs:

Pine Siskin – Spinus pinus

  • Similarity: Pine siskins bear a certain resemblance to female RWBs, particularly in terms of their subdued, earthy plumage. While they do have more streaking across their bodies and a more slender build compared to the female Red-winged Blackbirds, their similar palette of brown tones makes them hard to differentiate from afar.
  • Behavior: During winter, pine siskins frequently frequent feeders, especially for thistle or nyjer seeds, or they cling to the tips of branches on pine and other conifer trees. They may even hang upside down to access seeds below them. These birds are social, often foraging in close-knit flocks and communicating incessantly with each other, even while in flight with their characteristic undulating pattern.
  • Where to Find Them: These little birds predominantly occupy the coniferous and mixed forests across North America.
  • Fun Fact: Pine siskins are known for their sociable and gregarious nature, often forming large, mixed-species flocks with other finches. This close-knit community behavior not only fosters a lively social structure but also aids in survival as they can collectively watch out for predators. 

Song Sparrow – Melospiza melodia

  • Similarity: Song sparrows, with their streaked brown plumage, exhibit a subdued color palette that allows them to blend seamlessly into their natural environments, similar to female RWBs. 
  • Behavior: Song Sparrows move swiftly through dense, low vegetation or low branches, sometimes venturing onto open ground in search of food. Their flights are brief and fluttering, marked by a distinctive downward pumping of the tail. Male Song Sparrows prefer to sing from exposed perches, such as small trees.
  • Where to Find Them: Song Sparrows are quite adaptable, inhabiting a wide variety of habitats including marshes, fields, and forest edges, as well as urban and suburban areas across North America. 
  • Fun Fact: Song Sparrows have a rich and complex vocal repertoire, with individual birds capable of producing a variety of different song variations. 

Conclusion

While the red-winged blackbird is unique in its own right, the world is filled with blackbirds and related species that have their own distinctive features. Whether it’s a splash of color, a contrasting pattern, or a melodious call, each bird has something special to offer, much like the iconic red-winged blackbird. Maybe after reading this, you can go out and identify the red-winged blackbirds and their relatives with ease!

Credits:

All About Birds – https://www.allaboutbirds.org/news/