(Genus, species: Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus)
The Yellow-Headed Blackbird is an attractive resident of marshy areas throughout Western North America -- particularly the prairie regions. Unfortunately their 'song' doesn't match their pretty feathers. Rather than a lovely trill, the blackbird lets out a rather nasal squawking sound. Ahh well, at least they look nice.
We were driving through Nanton, Alberta and saw a large number of the birds sitting on top of cat tails in a large marshy area (one of which is shown in the photo). Oddly enough they were the only ones we spotted on our entire trip from Calgary to Cranbrook. After a bit of research, we learned that they like large marshy areas -- the males are territorial, so the area must be large enough to host a few of them (at least if you want to spot them). They tend to live in loose colonies so require enough territory for at least a few males.
We also noticed that the red winged blackbirds that usually dominate the ponds and fence posts near our home seemed to cower every time their slightly larger yellow-headed cousins let out a squawk.
While taking photographs, I was "swooped" by one of the males (apparently I ventured a bit to close to his territory so I quickly backed off). Yellow-headed blackbird males are very territorial, though they usually only swoop at other birds that enter their area (not soccer moms with cameras).
General: Yellow-headed blackbirds live in Western Canada and the United States in marshy areas. They are particularly fond of cattail marshes. In Canada and the Northern US, they migrate south during winter months (they're easy to find from April to September, but don't stick around for our harsh winters).
Description - male: The yellow-headed blackbird is 8 to 12 inches long.
Bright yellow head and chest with the remainder black (thus the name "yellow-headed" blackbird). Feet, legs, eyes and beak are black. There is a streak of white on the wings, that is most noticeable while in flight.
Description - female: The female is much different than the male. The body is brown with a yellow chest. There are hints of yellow on the face. The beak and legs are dark grey to black. The females are quite a bit smaller than the males and lack their white wingbars.
Description - young: When immature, the birds are similar in coloring to the females.
Feeding: Diet consists of insects and seeds. Their marshy habitat has an abundance of insect life.
Habitat: Cattail marshes, croplands and shoreland vegetation.
Nesting: Yellow-headed Blackbirds breed in colonies. Males typically have 2 to 3 mates, though particularly energetic males can have 5 or 6. Needless to say, the females do most of the work raising the chicks.
The female builds the nest, which is a bulky, open cup made of leaves, stems, and grass, and lashed to cattails or other plants growing over the water. The female uses wet vegetation to weave a nest which tightens and strengthens as it drys. The female typically lays a clutch of 3 - 5 eggs each year which they incubate for 12 days.
The female provides most of the food for the young, but the male may help feed the young of one of his mates. The young leave the nest 9 to 12 days after hatching, but stay nearby, close to the water, until they can fly, about 9 to 12 days later. The female feeds the young for a few days after they fledge. Females typically raise one brood each season but may raise two.
Enemies: The main enemy of the Yellow-Headed Blackbird is the Marsh Wren (surprisingly, it's a much smaller bird). The wren competes for nesting space and will attack the blackbird's eggs and young.
Crows and grackles also raid the nests to feed on the eggs and young.
Migration: Migrate south to winter in the southern United States and Mexico. Only found in Canada from April through September. They migrate during the day in loose flocks.