by Ella Sorensen
In March, among the first sounds to break the stillness of winter in a Great Salt Lake marsh is the harsh rasping voice of the male Yellow-headed Blackbird. This loud raucous cacophony lasts through spring and into the summer. The daytime vocal peaks of dawn and twilight extend into the night when moonlight floods the darkened skies.
Some liken the noise to the sound of a strangling cat. G.A. Ammann who studied this blackbird in Michigan describes the sounds as “the most awful, hoarse squeals one could imagine”.
Weak vocalizations begin while still tightly enclosed within the egg and the repertoire intensifies and diversifies as the bird matures to include songs and calls directed to those nearby and those far away, alarm calls, predator calls, scream calls, growl calls and calls of courtship and for their young.
Yellow-headed Blackbird is a species named by description. The dramatic and eye-catching intense yellow head of the male has been accredited by some as the spark that initiated their interest in learning more about birds. Two white patches contrast sharply with a black body. Males arriving in early spring before females often form large flocks; a visually spectacular bird phenomenon as they fly like giant amoebas rolling and swirling low around the marsh and adjacent uplands, giving to the human eye a pleasurable kaleidoscopic vision of changing patterns of bright yellow, black, and brilliant white. Females are much smaller, browner, have less intense yellow and lack the white wing patches.
The sporadic mysterious red-headed blackbird sometimes reported is likely an individual bird caught in the vagaries and quirks of light.
Visually and vocally conspicuous, Yellow-headed Blackbirds seldom go unnoticed.
Red-winged and Yellow-headed blackbirds breed commonly in the same emergent marshes of Utah. Red-winged blackbirds arrive first and begin setting up nesting territories. Yellow-headed finding their migratory path back from the southern United States and Mexico return to the reeds, rushes, and cattails and preferring nesting vegetation growing out of deeper water often usurp these areas from the red-winged. But red-winged can successfully nest in drier and other areas where yellow-headed will not.
The earlier arriving yellow-headed males begin setting up and defending territories in preparation for the arrival of the females. Males are polygamists. Multiple females will select a small area to nest within the male’s larger territory.
The nest is woven from water-soaked bulrush or other vegetation attached to stocks sticking several feet above the water surface. The drying nest-building materials contract, tightening the nest construction as well as the sheltering stocks.
In breeding season, yellow-headed forage mainly on aquatic insects in wetlands and adjacent uplands. Greasewood shrubs near wetlands swarming with midges are a favorite foraging site. In fall they more often frequent uplands where they walk or hop about gleaning seeds and insects from the ground.
As the chills of winter approach, Yellow-headed blackbird numbers dwindle as the birds, less tolerable of cold temperatures than other blackbirds, drift south to warmer climes.