Proposal (888) to South American Classification Committee



Add Agelaius phoeniceus (Red-winged Blackbird) to the main SACC list


Currently, Agelaius phoeniceus is on the SACC Hypothetical List:


Agelaius phoeniceus Red-winged Blackbird: Reported from Trinidad by ffrench (1991); the record was backed by unpublished photos by Tim Manolis.  Subsequently, Manolis submitted the photos to the TTBSDC, and the record was accepted (Kenefick 2019). Proposal badly needed.



Martyn Kenefick sent me the report from the TTBSDC, which provides the following details.  The bird was found in June 1980 by Tim Manolis and Richard ffrench in marshes bordering the Caroni Swamp and was reported into “mid 1981.”  The Committee vote was 6 to accept and 1 undecided, but committee members expressed some doubts, e.g. whether it was ship-assisted and whether Red-shouldered (A. assimilis) or Tricolored (A. tricolor) could be eliminated.  Although the original report stated that ffrench was sure it was not A. assimilis, virtually every committee member expressed doubt that A. assimilis could be eliminated based on anything but likelihood, because A. assimilis is a sedentary endemic with a small population endemic to Cuba, and the undecided member based his undecided stance on the point that A. assimilis could not be categorically eliminated.


Here is a screen shot of the photos and the account in Kenefick (2019); let me know if you would like a pdf of the publication.



My interpretation of the photo is that it is clearly a male A. phoeniceus/A. assimilis, with enough hint of yellow to eliminate A. tricolor.  The adult males are nearly indistinguishable by plumage.  Jaramillo (1999, New World Blackbirds) indicated that the songs differ slightly, but there is no recording to support the Trinidad record.  That’s unfortunate, especially because the bird was evidently present for about one year, and the size of the epaulet in the photos suggests a displaying, singing bird.


I share the concerns of the TTBSDC members on this one, but to the point that I would be conservative and not accept it as A. phoeniceus.  Of course, as expressed by some TTBSDC members, A. phoeniceus is more likely --- it is migratory (multiple records for Bermuda, for example), breeds as close as the northern Bahamas, and outnumbers the population of A. assimilis by many orders of magnitude.  But my reason for taking a more conservative approach is that true vagrants do not typically stay for a year.  Although that’s presumably the way A. assimilis colonized Cuba from A. phoeniceus stock (as with Barn and Cliff swallows in southern South America), it is nonetheless unusual for passerine vagrants to linger like this.  Although much less likely, I really cannot dismiss entirely the possibility that this is a Red-shouldered Blackbird prospecting new territory.  The number of records of non-migratory West Indian bird species recorded in south Florida suggests that over-water dispersal is not out of the question, although the difference in distance between Cuba and south Florida versus Trinidad makes this a weak point.  I also worry about the cage-bird trade, which is evidently widespread in Cuba and in Trinidad & Tobago.  Finally, I am not really impressed by the track record of A. phoeniceus as a vagrant.  Yes, there are multiple records from Bermuda, but almost everything shows up on Bermuda, and we tend to forget that Bermuda is at the same latitude as North Carolina.  Farther south, I see only one undocumented vagrant record in eBird from the West Indies, a sight record from Mayaguez, PR, of an adult male, which technically does not eliminate A. assimilis. EBird of course doesn’t have everything in it, but the point that Red-winged Blackbird is not a widespread vagrant in the West Indies is clear.


If the differences between male Red-winged and Red-shouldered are obvious in the field to someone experienced with Red-winged, then I doubt someone as experienced and reliable as Tim Manolis would have passed a Red-shouldered off as a Red-winged, even pre-split, but I can’t find out enough about Red-shouldered to see whether differences in the field should be obvious.


So, I tentatively vote NO on this, but without much conviction, so I await the comments of others.




KENEFICK, M.  2019.  Sixteenth report of the Trinidad and Tobago Birds Status and Committee: records submitted in 2018.  J. Trinidad and Tobago Field Naturalists Club: 49–54.



Van Remsen, September 2020




Comments from Claramunt: “NO. The photo is not identifiable at the species level. I’m not a Bayesian. Prior probabilities are not evidence.”


Comments from Bonaccorso: “NO. The photo is not good enough to make a decision.


Comments from Robbins: “NO. For reasons that you stated, I too support a conservative position on the id, so a no vote for acceptance as phoeniceus (a yes vote for acceptance as phoeniceus/assimilis).


Comments Lane: “The photos of the T&T bird, in my opinion, are diagnostic for Red-winged Blackbird in that the scarlet color of red epaulets eliminates the crimson-shouldered Tricolored Blackbird, and the obviously “inflated” epaulets is a common behavior of Red-winged when singing and displaying (which is what I assume the bird was doing while these photos were taken), and seems not to be the behavior of Red-shouldered Blackbird (see videos here: ), although perhaps Al has field experience with that species and can clarify if the Macaulay videos are not typical of singing behavior of Red-shouldered. Similarly, Tawny-shouldered Blackbird (which does not show such red epaulets) seems not to demonstrate epaulet-inflating while singing, and thus also can be discarded as an option.

Nevertheless, Red-shouldered Blackbird is clearly a very local and rare species in Cuba whereas Red-winged is one of the most abundant species of bird in North America, and so the overwhelming probability that the bird in the T&T photos is the latter rather than the former is hard to deny. 


“To argue that Red-winged Blackbird does not have a pattern of long-distance vagrancy is not entirely accurate. There is a more far-flung vagrant record from Orkney, Scotland, April-May 2017:

Photos here:


“I would argue that there are not a few cases of vagrants taking up residence where they end up rather than moving on after a shorter period, for example the Northern Gannet on the Farallons of California, the Black-browed Albatross in Scotland, the Golden Eagle on Kaua’i, Hawai’i, etc.  There are such things as parulids that have set up territories well out of range and returning annually (like Northern Parula in California). So this doesn’t seem like a strongly compelling reason to dismiss the record.


“Provenance might be the strongest argument not to accept the record, as the bird may have been ship-assisted. Personally, I am not bothered by ship-assistance if the bird is not restrained while on board--it has the option to depart whenever it wants (but likely will only do so if land is visible). It is not possible to assess feather wear on the present bird (given the poor quality of the images. In addition, I believe the photos would have been taken long after the bird could have replaced worn feathers), so assessing whether it was in a cage is not possible, but I am not a fan of the super-conservative stance that “we can’t tell, so we must assume the worst.” I think the likelihood that a Red-winged Blackbird could end up in T&T under its own power or ship assisted is quite good. Therefore, I would be in favor of accepting this record as a genuine one of the species for South America.


Comments from Zimmer: “Abstain until we hear from Alvaro regarding whether the behavior of “inflating” the epaulets occurs in Red-shouldered Blackbirds or not.  I have no experience with the latter species, and therefore, do not feel qualified to rule out its identification based upon the poor photos, even though they look like a pretty perfect match for Red-winged Blackbird to me (and forget Tricolored – the red epaulet is the wrong color, as is the yellow border).  I do find Dan Lane’s arguments in favor of A. phoeniceus pretty compelling, particularly if it can be confirmed that there is a behavioral difference regarding the inflating of the epaulets during song between phoeniceus and assimilis.  Minus that information, I would take the conservative path and vote “NO” to pinning the ID to phoeniceus, and “YES” to accepting it as A. phoeniceus/assimilis.”


Comments from Jaramillo: “I am actually going to vote YES for this bird, because the likelihood is so overwhelming that it is a Red-winged and not a Red-shouldered. Red-shouldered Blackbird is incredibly range-restricted, and it has a very small population. I looked at Birdlife International and was surprised that they have Red-shouldered Blackbird as Least Concern. I don’t know that anyone ever sees more than a max of 20 of these birds in any one spot in the Zapata Swamp. You have to go to very specific places to find this blackbird in the Zapata peninsula. If you ask me, the world population is probably only a few thousand, and in my opinion they are also on the decline. Now, I do not know how many were about in 1980, but I am sure it was not all that different then. Red-shouldered has a few population centers, but the Zapata Swamp is the only major one. They do not show up randomly in other spots of the country where they do not breed. This species is actually quite unlike a Red-winged in many ways, and in my opinion is strongly resident, only moving small amounts depending on water levels. They do not form flocks with non-breeding grackle/blackbirds in agricultural areas as you see with Tawny-shouldered etc. In short, there is a stronger chance that a Kirtland's Warbler will wind up in Trinidad and Tobago than a Red-shouldered Blackbird. As such, I am comfortable calling this a Red-winged.”


Comments from Stiles: “NO. My experience with strayed, overshooting fall migrants is that they may stay around for a month or three, but they leave when environmental cues (or their innate circannual rhythm) tells them that migration season is nearing (as do the members of their species in the normal winter range). After all, their breeding area is fixed in their magnetic sense, so they know where they should head for! Therefore, if the unidentifiably photographed bird did stay around for over a year, it was at least as likely a lost, nonmigratory cubano.”


Comments from Lane: “YES. I have managed to get my hands on my copy of Jaramillo and Burke's New World Blackbirds (Princeton/Helm) and was gratified to see the following under A. assimilis: "Unlike Red-winged Blackbirds, the male does not spread his red epaulets when singing. The wings are kept closed, but are drooped, and the epaulets are kept covered." So, I think we can discard A. assimilis as a potential ID for the bird in this photo, which really only leaves the question to be origin. As I stated in my comments above, I think there is enough likelihood that this is a naturally occurring vagrant (as determined by the TTBSDC) that I am willing to accept it as such.”


Comments from Stiles: “Add Agelaius phoeniceus to the SA list. As it stands, the NO votes have a slight majority, but given the photos and Alvaro’s description of the singing posture of A. assimilis, I (and Dan) are convinced to change our votes to YES: should propose a re-vote to see if others might be convinced to switch.”


Comments from Areta: “YES. I am persuaded by Dan´s arguments. I also asked Rosendo Fraga, who thought it was highly unlikely that the resident assimilis would fly over to Trinidad & Tobago.”


Additional comments from Remsen: “I’m changing my vote to YES, but reluctantly.  Dan’s and Alvaro’s comments have persuaded me.  My continuing worry is the issue of origin, but there is no actual evidence to support the escapee hypothesis other than its long-standing presence, and if Red-winged Blackbird were a regular feature of the cagebird trade there, TTBSDC would know it.  Finally, I dislike overturning a national committee’s vote unless there is compelling reason to do so.”


Comments from Pacheco: YES. Especially because of the arguments put forward here by Dan. Regarding the residual doubt at the origin, the best thing that can happen is that new vagrants appear and are better photographed.”


Comments from Jon Dunn: “YES.  I assume all or your Committee members have access to Jaramillo and Burke (1999). It's all there. With the wing and shoulder prominently exposed, it's not a Red-shouldered Blackbird. They listed an important citation (Whittingham et al. 1992). I perused the reference and cite the relevant section: "In North America, males display their epaulets in flight and in a song-spread-display where their wings are arched and fanned out (Nero 1956). In Cuba we saw only males display their epaulets only in flight; males did not perform song-spread displays and always concealed epaulets when singing." This coincides exactly with my own recollections with this species in nine trips, nearly all of which where we watched singing Red-shouldered Blackbirds. I have yet to have gotten a photo showing the red shoulder! It does contradict Raffaele et al (1998). which ways of Red-shouldered: "When singing, the male drops its wings, exposing the brilliant red shoulder patch, raises its back feathers and spreads its tail." I suspect this is a lapsus. I have not reviewed Nero, but I'm sure us northerners can relate to the song display of a Red-winged Blackbird when perched. The songs are different between Red-winged and Red-shouldered (both sexes; sonograms presented in Whittingham et al. 1992)) and this combined with the black plumage of the female and the sharp difference in displays (important in blackbirds) all indicate that separate species status of these two is the best treatment. I remain convinced that the Trinidad bird is a Red-winged Blackbird. The origin issue is trickier, but would accept for reasons articulated earlier. I see no compelling reason to differ from the national committee, and the species clearly shows an ability to stray great distances (e.g., the U.K.). Although an adult male could easily be overlooked in Cuba from Red-shouldered, a female would be easily separable. I don't know how hard the Cubans or visiting birders scour blackbird flocks for strays, for either a Brown-headed Cowbird or a Red-winged Blackbird. One doesn't see large blackbird flocks in Cuba, at least from my experience.”


“Literature cited


Jaramillo, A., and P. Burke. 1999. New World Blackbirds. Princeton University Press. 


Nero, R.W. 1956. A behavior study of the Red-winged Blackbird II. Territoriality. Wilson Bull. 68:129-150. 


Raffaele, H., J. Wiley, O. Garrido, A. Keith, and J. Raffaele. 1998. A Guide to the Birds of the West Indies. Princeton University Press. 


Whittingham, L.A., A. Kirkconnell, and L.M. Ratcliffe. 1992. Differences in song and sexual dimorphism between Cuban and North American Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus). Auk 109: 928-933.”