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Dawn finds the cattail marsh alive with exuberant music as avian singers blend their trills, whinnies, staccatos, quacks, honks, konk-la-rees and bubbly songs into a wonderful springtime chorus. Only the bass notes are lacking. Then low, raspy sounds are followed by a crescendo and a drawn-out krawk joins in. The discordant bass notes jar my senses. This croak sounds as if someone is being choked.
Searching for the source of these unmusical notes, I find a sleek-looking, 9½-inch black bird with a bright yellow head perched proudly atop a cattail stem. The bird spreads his tail, slightly flares his wings, lowers his head and lets loose with song. It isn't beautiful music, but I admire how it flows effortlessly forth. The notes seem forcefully ratcheted from deep within his soul and his whole body vibrates. Though the sound is grating, it is music to my ears and a song I long to hear each spring.
Yellow-headed blackbirds are simple to identify (if only all bird identification were this easy) for their name accurately describes their looks. Even a youngster when asked can describe this mystery bird accurately. As one of the more vividly colored marsh birds, males are a glossy black with a bright yellow head and breast. The heavy, sharply pointed beak is black with black extending back through its mischievous black eyes. White patches on the leading wing edges contrast sharply with black wings and are visible when the bird flies but remain mostly hidden when the bird alights. The bird's scientific name, Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus, accurately describes it not once, but twice. It's as if the early taxonomists were so enamored of the bird's bold colors that they had to repeat the name for emphasis – from Greek, xantho means yellow and cephalus means head. The slightly smaller females are a bronzy brown with a golden throat and breast and no white wing patches.
Yellow-headed blackbirds nest in Wisconsin but we're at the eastern edge of their breeding range. Their numbers fluctuate annually and we can't depend that they will return to the same marsh, especially the smaller marshes, each year. These blackbirds are more finicky when choosing nest sites than are the more common red-winged blackbirds. Yellow-heads nest in colonies, preferring cattail marshes and reed beds in deeper water farther out from shore and deeper within extensive cattail beds than the red-wings. Male yellow-heads return from their Mexican over-wintering areas from late April into early May. They establish territories and actively defend them from neighboring males. Females slip in silently later.
After being courted her with his unmusical songs and proud display of his white wing patches, she succumbs to his advances. However, he is seldom satisfied with one female. Polygamy is fairly common within the community. Each female builds her own nest, which she completes in two to four days. A marvel of engineering, the nest, placed over water that is two to four feet deep, is constructed of water-soaked aquatic vegetation that is woven around several live plant stems. As the vegetation dries, the nest shrinks, tightening its grip and pulling in the supporting stems, which further helps to conceal the nest.
The nest is bulky and six inches high with a fairly deep nest bowl. She lays an average of four eggs, each one bluish-white heavily dotted with brown. Seemingly stuffed deep inside the nest, she incubates the eggs for 12 to 13 days. Young leave the nest when they are 9 to 12 days old. They can't fly yet, but are adept at holding on and scrambling among the reeds, for any slip could mean death by drowning. One brood is raised per year and their time with us is all too short.
Summer advances into August. The krawking birds are quiet. They've left the marshes for surrounding fields of grain. They've molted and flocked together, often with other blackbirds, and now begin leaving Wisconsin.
So venture out on those cool spring mornings. Listen for the squawky bass notes. Scan the marshes looking for yellow, Easter egg-sized yellow spots poking just above the cattails. For each yellow spot is attached to a sassy blackbird with a "you've got to look at me, I'm handsome even though I can't sing" attitude. Who can resist?
Anita Carpenter treads the bogs, beaches and byways watching nature nationwide and near her Oshkosh home. You can hear the yellow-headed blackbird's song at North American Bird Songs.