Text and photo by Paula Dittrick, TMNCPC blogmaster
Male red-winged blackbirds frequently raise their red-shoulder patches and sing, especially in spring.
Kent Rylander, author of the book The Behavior of Texas Birds, told the Texas Ornithological Society’s January meeting that male red-winged blackbirds vigorously defend their territory.
When asked to describe the behavior in this blog’s photo, Rylander said the male red-winged blackbird’s display of red-shoulder patches is a reflex (fluffed feathers); a fixed action pattern or FAP (the opening of the mouth and steering it toward the aggressor); and an intention movement (spread wings, an intention movement for taking flight).
The University of Texas Press published The Behavior of Texas Birds in 2002 to provide readers with answers to that common birdwatcher question: “Why do they do that?”
He notes FAPs are innate (genetically programmed) rather than learned behavior. FAPs differ from reflexes because reflexes have no steering component.
“When the male’s red shoulder patches are experimentally painted black, he no longer is capable of signaling his presence to neighborhood males; within sections, they invade and take over his territory,” Rylander writes in his book.
Other FAP examples in birds include pecking at a seed, reaching out for prey with talons, and inserting food into a nestling’s mouth.
Rylander is a former Texas Tech professor who taught ornithology, animal behavior, and comparative anatomy until he retired in 2004. After that, he taught a summer course in ornithology at Texas Tech’s Junction campus until 2015.