I was telling some friends about my latest canoe trip to Goose Lake north of Jefferson.
They asked if I caught any fish. I said no. Goose Lake is not a fishing lake and I was birding to try to get some good photos of Yellow-headed Blackbirds. Their reaction was “What kind of birds?” They had never heard of a Yellow-headed Blackbird much less seen any.
It is not an uncommon bird but its preferred habitat is in areas that humans seldom visit and it does not come to backyard feeders. It is mainly found in the northwest quarter of Iowa over water in marshes, wetlands and sloughs. I have seen them at Voas Nature Area west of Minburn, Brenton Slough near Granger, Snake Creek Marsh north of Rippey, and Goose Lake in Green County.
The males are easy to see. Their body is black with a bright yellow head and throat. When they fly white patches are visible in the middle of the wings. Their call is also distinctive.
The famous ornithologist David A. Sibley describes the male’s call like a rusty gate turning on hinges. Females make a chattering sound that might be called a song.
The Yellow-headed Blackbird spends its winters in the southwestern part of the United States and Mexico. The males arrive in Iowa in April and begin to establish their territory in the nesting areas; the females join them a month later. In 1984 a study done by Iowa State University estimated that there were 36,000 of this species in Iowa and today ornithologists believe that the population is about the same. Yellow-headed Blackbirds are in the Icteridae Family, the same group with other blackbirds, orioles, and larks.
They nest in large colonies, sometimes there will be several hundred pairs of them in a wetland and as many as twenty pairs per acre if there is an abundant food supply.
The males will mate with two to six females and keep them from other males and protect them from the marsh wrens that harass the females when she is sitting on eggs. Only the dominate males breed, leaving many of the younger males without mates.
The female Yellow-headed Blackbird does all of the work. She builds a basket shaped nest from dry stems, weaving the fibers in an intricate pattern. The nest is about two feet above the water’s surface in dense vegetation of cattails, bulrushes, or reed grass. She lays four light colored eggs which she incubates for twelve days and then feeds the brood for nearly two weeks until the young birds fledge. The male provides very little care for the young birds.
If there is a nest failure due to storms or predation she will usually attempt to raise a second brood. Nest predators are mink, raccoons, muskrats, and snakes that will eat the eggs and the young while they are still in the nest. The little Marsh Wren will also eat the eggs and harass a sitting female. Once the young have fledged they are often attacked by hawks and owls.
The Yellow-headed Blackbirds seems to be doing well in Iowa and they have a stable population. Their biggest threat is loss of habitat and lack of water in their nesting areas. Prolonged droughts like the one in 2012 would have a serious impact on these beautiful birds.