Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus?? Yep. The yellow headed blackbird, wintering in Cochise County, Arizona, in significant numbers, is the only species in the entire Xanthocephalus genus. Bet those birds feel special…and their lifestyle shows it. They nest over water, according to every bird website I consulted before writing this post, and bully smaller birds like red winged blackbirds and marsh wrens right out of any territory they choose to populate.
Beyond that, there are a couple of bits of puzzlement to consider. In winter, they’re reported to forage in “rolling flocks”, with some birds at the back of the pack constantly flying to the front of the group as they peck around for seeds and such, even tipping over a rock or two if it gets in the way of lunch. That sounds sensible enough, but the only place I’ve ever seen them is at the county landfill where we haul any household trash unsuitable for the burn barrel.
Well…not the landfill precisely. It’s actually a transfer station. We peons dump our stuff there, the bulldozer pushes it around, and it eventually gets hauled off to the landfill per se.
Does that mean the blackbirds, yellow headed along with other versions, are trash scavengers? Have the ornithology people at Cornell missed something here?
Maybe, maybe not. The birds don’t descend en masse on the mountain of garbage, but that could well be because there’s a ‘dozer on one side and usually one or more pickup trucks or commercial trash haulers dumping stuff on the other side, all the time. They do walk around on the ground a lot, though, looking interested and sometimes picking up…something.
But even if they’re not foraging, they’re certainly socializing at the dump. All of the photos on this page were taken at that site, either in February of 2013 or today in February of 2014.
As with many bird species, the males are more strikingly colored than the females. Boys get black body feathers with bright yellow chest areas, sometimes shifting more toward a rusty orange shade over the head, and white bars on the wings that are especially visible in flight. The girls are stuck with drab brown bodies and much more muted finery up top. The flashy males seem to know they’re hot stuff, too, mating with multiple females but only helping one girly bird build a nest. The mistresses are all on their own when it comes to that.
The photos obtained from the refuse transfer station also show another anomaly in that the vast majority of the birds present are clearly males. What does this mean? Is the dump like the yellow headed blackbird coffee shop where the guys go to hang out while the girls stay home?
I don’t know, but it certainly is curious. It’s almost like an all-guy flock, something none of the other websites seem to have observed or addressed.
On the day in 2013 when that picture was taken…it snowed. Not a common occurrence in our area, and certainly not one we’ve seen this year. This year, while much of the nation has been hit with humongous blizzards and nasty cold temperatures, we’ve been experiencing a non-winter. The lowest overnight temperature we’ve seen all season was 26 degrees above zero, and even that was only once. There’s been no rain, at least not that you could count–though some is forecast for this weekend–and daytime skies have been blue and clear more often than not.
Certainly, that was the case this morning. The early morning sun was behind me, bathing a tree full of blackbirds with its rays, begging the camera to get busy. Which it did.
And finally, a photo of the tree full of four and twenty blackbirds (or so), not all of them yellow headed versions by a long shot. Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus reportedly mixes freely with other blackbird species during the nonbreeding season. From what we see here, it looks likes the reports are right.
Blackbirds fascinate me. We had a few red winged blackbirds on the Montana ranch where I grew up, their numbers limited by the small amount of marsh land available for their breeding season. Sightings were rare and treasured. Yellow heads were never seen; that had to wait for our move to southern Arizona (and a trip to the dump). Besides, nasty online writers describe the yellow headed bird’s song as resembling a “rusty gate hinge”.
Well now, that’s not nice. I listened to the flock this morning for several minutes. I won’t do that with a bunch of rusty gate hinges. Okay, so it’s not the marvelous melody of their smaller red winged cousins, but it’s not bad, either.
Update: March 1, 2014. One of our readers, Shauna L. Bowling, expressed an interest in hearing the yellow headed blackbird’s song. Why not? The bird in the following video sings a lot, and others can be heard in the background as well.