Bird Lore: Yellow-headed Blackbird

Photo by LeRoy Van Hee
Photo by LeRoy Van Hee

The Yellow-headed Blackbird in Washington is mostly a summer resident east of the mountains. There it inhabits fresh-water marshes. It makes regular appearances in Western Washington in very small numbers, mostly in April and May. Every so often, one shows up in the Edmonds marsh, as did this adult female. She was here for about a week in mid-May.

The male is striking with his black body, white patches on his wings, and his yellow head and breast. The female has a brown body with duller yellow head and breast. This blackbird nests in the tall cattails of freshwater sloughs and marshy lake borders. It nests in colonies. Each male selects a territory within the colony and defends it against rivals with song. Each male may have up to five mates in a breeding season.

The Yellow-headed Blackbird feeds heavily on insects in summer. These include beetles, caterpillars, grasshoppers, ants, wasps, spiders, and even snails. A large part of its diet consists of grass and weed seeds plus waste grain. When this species is not in marshes, it can be found foraging in open fields, often in mixed flocks with other blackbird species.

Edmonds sightings of the Yellow-headed Blackbird have mostly been in the marsh or on the utility lines on the west side of the marsh along the railroad tracks. One bird was once seen on the grass in City Park. This species is not known to breed in Edmonds although it does breed in Western Washington in very small numbers.

A harsh, unmusical vocalization is characteristic of this blackbird. Although the male does sing to defends his territory, he has never been known to carry a tune. His song has been described as a cacophony of disparate sounds such as “old car horns, creaky rusty gates, and clackings.” You can hear this symphony of noise at this site:

— By Carol Riddell

Carol Riddell, author of our new “Bird Lore” feature, manages the bird education displays, on behalf of Pilchuck Audubon Society and Edmonds Parks & Recreation, at the Olympic Beach Visitor Station.

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