For generations, the sight of Red-winged Blackbirds has signaled the start of spring. It's worth pausing to watch the spring rituals of these social birds with glossy black bodies and red badges at the top of their wings (red with a stripe of yellow).

When the males arrive at their summer breeding grounds, they usually choose marshes, ponds and swamps, gravitating toward places with reeds, bushes and other tall ground cover (and insects). Watch and listen as they noisily stake out their territories. Perched on a reed or a branch, they fan their tails and hoist their wings to display their red badges. At the same time, they let loose their signature sound, which lands on a long trill.

Then the females arrive to select their mates. Some territories end up with several nesting females, as many as 15. But female Red-winged Blackbirds don’t look anything like the male birds. Her plumage is not black, nor does she have red on her wings. She is brown and speckled, which gives her a woodsy appearance that helps her camouflage well with the shrubs, grasses and reeds in which she builds her nest.

During nesting, females incubate the eggs while males keep an eye out for interlopers. They will fly out and attack encroaching hawks, crows and other birds, and loudly scold humans.

In spite of this territorial behavior, Red-winged Blackbirds are social creatures. When they’re not defending their territories and mates and just congregating with the flock, they tuck away their red wing badges, making only the yellow stripe visible. In the winter, they’ll gather in impressively large flocks, sometimes reaching 1 million birds. These winter flocks can be a mix of birds that include grackles, cowbirds and starlings. By day, they separate into smaller flocks to forage for food and reunite in the evening.

Though they are known for spending time in farmers’ fields, devouring insects, grains and seeds, the Red-winged Blackbird is also a feeder visitor. Set out a ground feeder or a hopper feeder with plenty of seeds, such as Lyric Cardinal Premium Sunflower and Safflower Wild Bird Mix, to draw in these beauties.

Female Red-winged Blackbird. Thinkstock