Artistry of the Blackbird

Red-winged blackbirds hide their nests of woven sedges, grasses, and cattails deep in marshes, wet meadows, and swamps. Females weave the structure low to the ground, finding perfect hiding places to lay their eggs and raise young. Sometimes several females will nest in close proximity and even share the same mate. Because of their wet locations and perfect camouflage, I have never found a blackbird nest in the field. The ones I’ve seen and painted are from natural history museums and nature centers. Sometimes they are recently collected and sometimes, as with the one here, they are more than 100 years old. What a pleasure it is to glimpse the secrets of the nest and share the beautiful artistry of the bird.

Tips and Techniques– When painting a nest, I pick out major strands that can become “guideposts” for the structure. These are typically larger strands of nesting material that I can use as reference points for all the small stuff around them. When I get lost in the complexity, I return to my guideposts and work the sections behind and between them, adding more detail with each pass of paint. Follow the work in progress to decipher some of the stages of developing this nest.

18 Comments on “Artistry of the Blackbird

  1. Jean, thank you for such an enchanting painting, and wonderful lesson! What a great celebration of the bird we so eagerly await each spring. Did this nest and eggs come from the collection in the little museum on Hog Island?

    • Hi Sue- Nice to hear from you. No, this wasn’t in Hog Island’s collection. I found it in an online museum collection last year (and now can’t find the source). Be well!

  2. Thank you for this reminder. I get lost and overwhelmed; finding a guidepost to return to is an excellent idea. I love painting nests. I took a class with Mary Whyte and bought her demonstration of one and treasure it.

    • Hi Cathy- I bet that is a treasure! Finding larger strands that you can return to and that break the nest into smaller sections can help a lot. Blackbird nests are great because they are made of larger strands that make them easier to pick out.

      • I remember learning about creating the depth in your first Art of the Bird class, but I think this nest came later? It’s new to me. I never tire of seeing your beautiful nests. Each one is unique. I wish I could take another class; Art of the Bird was amazing!

  3. Last summer I watched a blackbird in my backyard picking dried strawberry runners. It took only this though threads, picking and pulling one after the other while keeping the rest in its beak. It was fascinating to see.

    • Sounds fascinating! It interesting to see what a nest contains. It can be hard to make out, but often there are bits of leaves, feathers, strips of grape vine bark, pine needles, lichen, etc. that make for interesting study.

  4. I’ve never seen one of their nests in the wild either…though I do know where they ‘hangout’ in nearby marshes in large stands of phragmites (spelling??). They always make that wonderful/peculiar sound when I hike by..and I love to look for them swaying on those tall reeds way up over my head!! Seeing that flash of red on their wings is so fun! Who knew that the nests would be way down low? Perfect hiding place – it’s so thick in there, and wet and boggy….you’d never get in there. No wonder I’ve never seen one of their nests in the wild! Interesting!!!

    • I think you have to find the nest in the winter when the ground and water are frozen. By then, snow has likely matted or covered them, but it could be worth a look. Still, those phragmite thickets are impenetrable!

      • haha- now you know where I’ll be hiking this winter!! Hoping to catch a peek at one of these nests!! Perhaps I’ll be lucky if I know what I’m looking for now!! Wow!!! Thanks for all the great info!

  5. Ahhh….your nests. I so enjoy how you sketch them. You capture the uniqueness of each one. And thank you for the back story. Nests will be a constant source of practice for me. But I really don’t mind.

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