Leonard and I were talking about how most of our avian summer residents have departed and we were wondering when we would see our first fall and winter visitors. Autumn is here!!
Ash Creek Wildlife Area CA (Elkin’s #3 Pond Trail where these pictures were taken) is significantly more quiet, visually and aurally, once yellow-headed blackbirds (Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus) migrate. The males, with their beautiful black bodies and striking yellow heads, add color to the landscape. However, the singing of the male yellow-headed blackbird, if its cacophonous calls can be called a “song”, is missed even more than its plumage. Sitting atop vegetation, the males ruffle their feathers, assume an asymmetrical pose and make some of the most interesting sounds. Their distinctive song is difficult to describe, but I have seen the adjectives harsh, scraping, strangling, bizarre, mechanical and unpleasant used to characterize this blackbird’s voice. Probably my favorite comparison though comes from Cornell’s “All About Birds” website: like a “rusty gate opening”. The silence is almost eerie.
This gregarious bird is common in the Western two-thirds of North America. The males winter mostly in the Southwestern States while female yellow-headed blackbirds tend to winter further south into Central Mexico.
In spring, Leonard and I listen for the raucous sounds of the returning yellow-headed blackbird males, who usually arrive 1 to 2 weeks before the females. While waiting for the females to join them, many males stay in the cottonwood trees next to our house (near Lookout CA, Modoc County). Because of the falling excrement, it is absolutely impossible to keep our windows clean. I am always happy when the females are back and the yellow-headed blackbirds move to the nearby freshwater marshy areas.