I sat on the boardwalk and watched the bird bobbing on the green sea of reeds and rushes. In the gentle breeze, its weight bending the spears, it swayed as if keeping time to the sweet-sounding symphony of the marsh on a magnificent morning.
Sporting a chrome yellow head, nape and chest, ebony body and white wing patches, the mature male yellow-headed blackbird croaked low and hoarse. As the minutes slipped away, I had to move on. A minuscule movement on my part sent the beautiful bird winging.
I didn't see his mate, if he had one. She, with a subtle golden wash of color on her face and breast, slight streaking on her belly and brownish body, perhaps remained quietly secluded somewhere in the wetland.
In spring, males precede females heading north, where they select a territory. Aggressive during the nesting season, they defend their stake against other males of the same species and drive red-winged blackbirds from the area.
When the female arrives she builds a deep, basket-like nest of water-soaked grasses, reeds and cattails around the sturdy stems of the same. A partly canopied top is the final touch of the sturdy abode. Generally, yellow-headed blackbirds nest only in plants growing over standing water.
Four pale gray or green eggs with speckles and splotches are layed. For 12 to 13 days incubation falls primarily on the female. Young leave the nest (fledge) at about 9-12 days of age, but remain hidden in the dense vegetation until they are able to fly at three weeks.
The yellow-headed blackbird inhabits the western half of the continent, breeding in the central and northern part and spending winters in the sunny south, well into Mexico.
While some Latin names do not seem to have any apparent correlation to the characteristic of a species, that is not the case with this bird. It has a relatively easy scientific name -- Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus -- that describes its appearance. Xantho means yellow and cephalus refers to head, consequently translating to yellowhead, yellowhead. In some localities this marsh bird is also called the copperhead.
Unlike its closest cousin, the melodious meadowlark, yellow-headed vocalizations have been likened to a common tool of Minnesota woods. Ornithologist David Allen Sibley, describes the song as extremely harsh and unmusical. A few hard, clacking notes on different pitches followed by a wavering raucous wail like a chainsaw.
Yellow-headed blackbirds are not fussy eaters. They feed on bugs, beetles, caterpillars, crickets, spiders, snails, dragonflies, grasshoppers, ants, army worms and alfalfa weevils. An omnivore, they also consume oats, corn and the seeds of barnyard and panic grasses and rag, smart and pigweeds.
According to the Breeding Bird Survey, which is conducted throughout the U.S., Canada and Mexico, the population is rising in the east and central parts of the continent. However, when yellow-headeds were tallied in the Audubon Christmas Bird Count, numbers showed a decline.
In addition to the red-winged, two other blackbirds, the Rusty and Brewer's, frequent Minnesota. All four species have expanded their ranges in recent years.
In addition to the meadowlark, other relatives of blackbirds include bobolinks, orioles, cowbirds and grackles. They all belong to a sub-family of avians that share the traits of a medium to large, heavy bill that parts the feathers of the forehead and a coloration of mainly black with yellow or orange.
Other than the cowbirds and grackles, I especially enjoy seeing the yellow-headed and its kin. They brighten my walks through woods and wetlands, fields and farmlands as did that male on the morning in the marsh.
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