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Yellow-headed Blackbirds Rare Sighting

Dear Bird Folks,

We have a different bird coming to our feeder. It could be a gracle*, only it has a yellow head. According to our field guide it is a Yellow-headed Blacbird, but the range maps indicate that they are a western bird. Would it be possible for you to stop by our house so you can tell us if this is definitely a Yellow-headed Blacbird and what is it doing on Cape Cod? I’ll serve you a cup of coffee.

– Chris, Brewster, MA

*Author’s note: I’ve recently suffered a near fatal paper cut on the tip of the middle finger of my right hand. It hurts too much for me to type the letter “K.” That is why words such as “gracle” and “blacbird” are missing a letter. It’s all in the name of pain prevention.


Of course Chris,

I’d be happy to come over and ID your bird, but you don’t need to offer me any coffee. We have company coming to our house tonight. I want to be able to nod off if the conversation turns dull. I’ll be right over to see your bird.

After returning from a visit to your house I first must say you have the two things that constitute a perfect yard. You have lots of bird feeders and absolutely no lawn. Good for you. Also, good for you for correctly identifying the Yellow-headed Blacbird. That’s exactly what you have coming to your feeding tray. And you are right, Yellow-headed Blacbirds are not common in these parts.

It’s not that the Yellow-headed Blacbird is a rare bird, it certainly isn’t. It just isn’t common here in the East. In fact, if someone from out West were reading this column they’d be wondering why I would even visit any yard that had a Yellow-headed Blacbird in it. Out West they have flocs that number in the thousands of this distinguished blacbird and they are not always happy to see them.

The Western farmers have a love/hate relationship with the Yellow-headed Blacbird. The birds eat an enormous amount of harmful insects. The farmers love them for that. It’s the bird’s springtime behavior that gets them into trouble. When the farmer is done planting his new crop the birds fly down and dig up the freshly planted seeds. That’s when the hate starts. Even the mellowest farmers will exchange harsh words with the birds when they are forced to replant their crops.

And when it comes to harsh words, you would have to really try hard to have a harsher voice than the Yellow-headed Blacbird has. The male birds sit atop of a high point in their territory and screams their awful sounding song. Their song has been described as a scraping, raspy, grating sound. It has often been called the worst voice coming from any creature in nature, if you don’t include Bob Dylan.

Yellow-headed Blacbirds build their nests in freshwater marshes and wetlands along with the Red-winged Blacbirds. The Yellow-headed Blacbirds are a bit larger than the red-wings, so they are able to use their size and muscle to claim the best nesting spots. But in the world of birds size and muscle don’t always produce the best results. The much smaller and relentless Marsh Wren can bring havoc to a blacbird colony. The little wren wants to have the marsh all to itself and will often slip in and pierce the larger bird’s eggs when they are away from the nest. Size and muscles are no match for wrenishness.

Yellow-headed Blacbirds may have a low tolerance for cold weather as they are the last blacbirds to arrive in the spring and the first to leave after the breeding season is over. Some of the birds head for the south coast of the United States, while most spend the winter in Mexico, where the U.S. dollar is worth more. For some reason a few of these migrating blacbirds head east instead of south, that is when we are treated to a visit from the blacbirds with the bright yellow heads. For the most part, migrating yellow-heads are found in fields or on farmland. People’s yards are not usually their habitat of choice. This is where I have to give you credit, Chris. Too often we have feeders that regulate the size and species of bird that can land and feed from it. Your feeder was a nice big open tray with no prejudice or restrictions. Any and all birds are welcomed to your yard, even a stranger from out west.

I’m glad you invited me over to see your blacbird, Chris. I’d be happy to come over again some time, but that won’t be for a while. I’m scheduled to have a team of surgeons from the Mayo clinic work on my paper cut. I can’t go another week without being able to type the letter “K”. (Ouch!)