Another spring arrival – earlier than usual this year!
Yellow-headed blackbirds (Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus) usually return to Big Valley in April. My notes for the last several years support this:
2007, April 19th; 2008, March 31st; 2009, oops, no record; 2010, April 29th; 2011, April 21st.
Yet yesterday morning male yellow-headed blackbirds were in the cottonwood trees surrounding our house. There is no mistaking this distinctive bird with its bright yellow head and loud, harsh “rusty hinge” call. The males arrive several days before the females arrive in order to stake out their territories. Females also winter further south than the males and thus have a longer spring migration. Like the earlier-arriving red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus), the yellow headed blackbirds will stay in our cottonwoods for a few days before moving into the nearby wetlands.
Each male will stake out and defend his own territory, accepting up to eight females and their nests. Yellow-headed blackbird nests are open cups of woven reeds attached to either living or dead cattails and rushes. The nest is always located over water. The male will help feed the chicks in the first nest that was built, leaving all the other females in his territory and their chicks to their own devices.
Yellow heads breed in loose colonies that overlap with the breeding territories of red-winged blackbirds. Being larger and more aggressive, the yellow-headed blackbirds often displace the red wings, which arrived earlier in the season, leaving the less desirable locations to the smaller red wings.
Male yellow-headed blackbirds have a black body, black bill and legs, bright yellow head, neck and breast, black stripe in front of the eye reaching the bill and white wing patches which are visible in flight. The females are more brown and their yellow coloring is dull.
Yellow-headed blackbirds reside in western wetlands and along lakes and marshes – anywhere there is an abundance of cattails, reeds and rushes. They eat aquatic insects as well as grain and weed seeds. They often can be found foraging in agricultural lands near the wetlands.
One picture was taken in the cottonwood trees in our yard (Lookout CA) just as the sun rose about 7:00 AM. Because of the morning light, the yellow on the bird’s head is darker than the lemon-yellow shade visible on a picture taken at Ash Creek Wildlife Area about 10:00 AM.