Cochise County Birds: Yellow Headed Blackbird, Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus

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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.

February 27, 2014, Cochise County, Arizona.  Four  male yellow headed blackbirds (Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus) plus two females (left side, background) and one ?? (bottom)

February 27, 2014, Cochise County, Arizona. Four male yellow headed blackbirds (Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus) plus two females (left side, background) and one ?? (low center)

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.

Interesting.

February 20, 2013, Cochise County.  It looks for all the world like a bachelor flock, oodles of male yellow headed blackbirds foraging but nary a female in sight.

February 20, 2013, Cochise County. It looks for all the world like a bachelor flock, oodles of male yellow headed blackbirds foraging but nary a female in sight.

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.

Male yellow headed blackbird, Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus, photographed in Cochise County, Arizona, on February 27, 2014.

Male yellow headed blackbird, Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus, photographed in Cochise County, Arizona, on February 27, 2014.

Two male yellow headed blackbirds, wintering in Cochise County, Arizona.

Two male yellow headed blackbirds, wintering in Cochise County, Arizona.

THREE male yellow headed blackbirds.

THREE male yellow headed blackbirds.

Same trio, different photo.

Same trio, different photo.

What the--?!?  That's my breakfast at Denny's, not a bunch of blackbirds.  That egg yolk on the right is NOT from a yellow headed blackbird egg, I assure you.

What the–?!? That’s my breakfast at Denny’s, not a bunch of blackbirds. That yolk on the right is NOT from a yellow headed blackbird egg, I assure you.

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.

This tree full of blackbirds, not all of them the yellow headed variety, inspired this post.

This tree full of blackbirds, not all of them the yellow headed variety, inspired this post.

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.

7 thoughts on “Cochise County Birds: Yellow Headed Blackbird, Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus

  1. I have seen few birds here for a few months. I do have one nesting in the eaves of my house, but only hear it when I take the trash out after dark. I guess it runs around all day and comes back at night. I haven’t even seen it. I keep watching for it but no look-see yet. There are a couple that sit on a wire hanging down over my kitchen window during the summer. I enjoy them all summer long. The guy that hung the new gutters tacked the wire up and it was drooping down again within just a week or so. I guess those little birds are heavier than they look.

  2. Heh. Either the birds are heavier, or the gutter hanger used some pretty tacky tacks.

    As you can tell from my various bird related posts over the years, we’re never totally without the company of birds in this area. There are always some around, seldom fewer than half a dozen species during any given month of the year, sometimes many more.

  3. I remember those days, when birds of some kind were around. I think they all drowned in all the rain here. I saw a bird today for the first time in a couple of months. It was sitting on the trash bin, in the sun. I enjoyed it for a few minutes before it flew off. I have seen squirrels this last winter though. They scamper through the trees across the alley from me.

  4. Becky: That’s a grim picture, drowning all the birds in the rain–but I get your point, “loving” the rain as much as you and Dennis do. There’s a reason Seattle is the suicide capitol of the U.S., one would think. It’s also possible that the squirrels are not exactly helpful to the bird population. The following is from a British Trust for Ornithology report:

    “Squirrels in general are major predators of birds’ nests in the USA. The American Red Squirrel (Tamiascurus hudsonicus) and Gray-necked Chipmunks (Eutamias cinereicollis) are primary nest predators according to Martin (1988, 1993, 1998), whilst Holmes (1990) reports that a camera showed most frequent predators in hardwood forest at Hubbard Brook, New Hampshire, were Eastern chipmunk (Tamias striatus), American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus), Flying Squirrel (Glaucomys volans), Blue Jay and Raccoon (Procyon lotor). The American Red Squirrel is a major predator of forest birds’ nests in parts of the USA according to Reitsma et al. (1990)….”

    We’ve yet to see a squirrel out here in the desert. Conversely, seeds are incredibly abundant, as well as fruits in season.

    Sha: I didn’t have the camcorder with me. However, since you asked, I’ll embed a YouTube vid with their song right after I post this comment. Look farther up the page for the update.

  5. Never thought of their sound as odd, but I grew up hearing their cousins (other blackbirds), so maybe I was conditioned early. Either way, though, it is definitely interesting.

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