The yellow-headed blackbird is a denizen of Minnesota wetlands. Males are strikingly colored, with bright golden-yellow heads; jet-black bodies, masks, and bills; and white wing patches that are especially visible in flight. A female is slightly smaller and more brown than black, with a wash of duller yellow on the throat and chest and no white wing marks.
Maybe even more distinctive than the male's plumage is his song, a raspy, ringing, multi-note gurgle-buzz that sounds like a rusty door or gate hinge swinging open. Males and females alike communicate with kuck or keck calls too.
Marshes, sloughs, and wetlands filled with cattails, bulrushes, or reeds are prime habitat. Unlike red-winged blackbirds, which gravitate to wetland fringes, yellow-heads occupy habitat directly over standing water. "They like a good interspersion of open water pockets and cattails or other sturdy vegetation," says Steve Stucker, ornithologist for the DNR's Minnesota Biological Survey. "That's their niche. If the water dries up, yellow-headed blackbirds move on."
Minnesota sits at the eastern edge of prime yellow-headed blackbird range, though Wisconsin and even Michigan have a few colonies. Northern South Dakota and central North Dakota serve as the epicenter of the bird's summer range. Minnesota's far western edge—especially Lincoln, Laq qui Parle, Big Stone, and western Yellow Medicine counties—has the most birds.
Yellow-headed blackbirds live in colonies. Spring to early summer is prime time for male breeding displays. The birds cling on and swing from sturdy vegetation stems while stooping their head and tail and singing their squawky song. Females weave a nest from last year's dried vegetation, placing the structure between plant stems and over water. Spiders and insects such as dragonflies, beetles, caterpillars, flies, and ants provide protein-rich summer forage. The birds also feed on grain and weed and grass seeds.
Counts of yellow-headed blackbirds in Minnesota have declined by an average of 1.86 percent per year since 1967 in the North American Breeding Bird Survey. The birds are a species in greatest conservation need in the state and the subject of a conservation plan by Audubon Minnesota. Drought, high water, and wetland drainage can all hurt populations.
A Delightful Distraction
My son Noah and I "discovered" a breeding colony of yellow-headed blackbirds on Hennepin County's Eagle Lake while bluegill fishing late last spring. Forgetting about panfish for a while, we instead drifted our boat along a cattail edge, listening to a rusty-gate-hinge serenade and watching the antics of these handsome wetland wonders.
Tom Carpenter,, freelance writer