Treasures of the Library

Red-winged Starling or Marsh Blackbird, plate LXVII

John James Audubon’s “red-winged starling” is called a red-winged blackbird today. The name comes from the flashy red shoulder patches on the males. These birds were as well-known in the early 1800s as they are in the 21st century. With a range that covers North America, they are one of the continent’s most abundant birds.

Male red-winged blackbirds are notorious for their territorial behaviour during nesting season. They swoop down to scare off potential intruders, which Audubon describes affectionately in his Ornithological Biography: “Now is the time, good-natured reader, to see and admire the courage and fidelity of the male, whilst assiduously watching over his beloved mate. He dives headlong towards every intruder that approaches his nest, vociferating his fears and maledictions with great vehemence, passing at times within a few yards of the person who has disturbed his peace…”*

Audubon painted four life-sized examples of this daring species – an adult male (top), a young male (left), an adult female (centre) and a young bird (bottom). He shows the differences between the black males with their striking wing markings and the more muted brown-toned females. He depicts the adult male in flight, in a characteristic defensive swoop.

Three of the birds are perched on a red maple, a common tree in eastern North America. The buds indicate early spring.

Details

  • It is a medium-sized portrait, measuring 66 cm high and 53 cm wide. It is printed on paper measuring 96.9 cm high and 65 cm wide.
  • This is plate LXVII (or 67) in the collection. The plate refers to an antiquated scientific name for the red-winged blackbird, Icterus phoeniceus. The name used today is Agelaius phoeniceus.
  • This plate was engraved, printed and coloured by R. Havell, on J. Whatman paper, dated 1836.
  • The plate is part of set number 14.
  • Hand-written notes in graphite appear at the bottom of the page: “Pl. 170” and a faded, crossed-out “161. Agelaius phoeniceus.”

 

* John James Audubon, Ornithological Biography, or an Account of the Habits of the Birds of the United States of America, Accompanied by Descriptions of the Objects Represented in the Work Entitled The Birds of America, and Interspersed with Delineations of American Scenery and Manners, Volume I, Adam Black, Edinburgh, 1831, p. 349.

Red-winged Starling or Marsh Blackbird, plate LXVII
Red-winged Starling or Marsh Blackbird, plate LXVII