Yellow-Headed Blackbirds: Lords of the Cattail Realm

By Dave Hanks

When out and about in marshes, you might hear what sounds as if a creature is vomiting. Look around, you will most likely see cattails and perched on those plants will be birds with orangey-yellow heads and chests. The sounds emitted will be constant, loud, and very distinctive. You are now in contact with Yellow-Headed Blackbirds. They are birds that are tightly linked to cattail stands.

This species is unmistakable with its bright head and large white wing patch (visible when in flight). The female has the same color pattern but it is much duller. Red-Winged Blackbirds and Marsh Wrens use the same habitat. Yellow-Heads are very aggressive toward the little Marsh Wren to keep them in their place. A polygamous species, the male may have up to 8 mates within his territory. Their nests are cup-shaped and woven around the stems of the sedges. He will help feed the nestlings in the first nest constructed, but the other females are on their own. They eat a large amount of insects and are very helpful to humans by eating insects, like grasshoppers, that are potentially harmful to crops.

When I used to teach biology, this bird was always visible when taking students on field trips. Needless to say, its bright colors and unusual song caused more than the usual interest for the students.

(Watching over his territory)