The first male red-winged blackbirds that I observed this year at our home near Lake Waconia arrived Feb. 22. They were seen in Faribault, Minn., on Feb. 19. mid-March is when we usually spot the first red-wings. When they first arrive we always know that more snow and raw winds could follow.

Still, the first red-wings have returned and are singing their trilled "o-ka-leeee" songs in wetlands, and that's music to our winter-weary ears and a welcome spring sign.

The glossy black males have bright red shoulder patches with a light yellow border. It's serious business for the males that they return before the females to stake out their claims in marshes and along reedy lake edges by singing and flashing red. Look for them on cattails.

The females arrive several weeks later. They're sparrow-like birds with white eyebrows, but otherwise brown above and streaked with brown below. The drab colors will camouflage her when she sits quietly on her nest.

One of the most widespread and numerous of Minnesota birds, red-wings winter in southern states, sometimes gathering in large flocks along with grackles and cowbirds. But with the first hint of spring, mature males head north. It takes young males two years to become black and to develop the striking red shoulder patches. Without the bright colors, the first-year males are unable to win territories or brides, and so they gather in flocks and wait for next year.

Jim Gilbert taught and worked as a naturalist for 50 years.