Years ago as a fish and wildlife biology student attending classes at the University of North Dakota, one of my favorite courses of study in the program’s curriculum was ornithology. Taught by Dr. Richard Crawford, who was also my undergrad and graduate advisor, he always made learning fun and interesting.
With scores of published research papers to his credit — mostly connected to wetlands and wetland-dependent wildlife, and especially the American coot — Dr. Crawford was never short on storytelling and sharing his observations and experiences with his students. One particular topic during his lectures in both ornithology and wildlife management classes had to do with the yellow-headed blackbird.
He told us that male red-winged blackbirds are the first species of blackbird to return to their wetland breeding habitats in the early spring. These birds will quickly set up their breeding territories within the prime, vegetated nesting habitat within suitable wetland basins.
Next to arrive are the male yellow-headed blackbirds, which descend on many of the same wetland habitats that their smaller red-winged cousins occupy and defend.
What happens next isn’t necessarily surprising in the animal kingdom, but I do remember that learning about it piqued my interest greatly. You see, the yellow-heads are larger and more aggressive, and thus, dominant over the redwings. All the energy that those male red-winged blackbirds expended in migrating to their breeding habitat and fighting amongst each other for prime real estate was, sometimes, all for naught.
Why, you ask?
Mature male yellow-headed blackbirds swiftly take ownership of red-winged blackbird territories, thereby displacing them from their interior and much-preferred nesting habitat of cattails and bulrush growing in deeper water. Relegated to the leftover and least desirable nesting habitat along the peripheral margins of a wetland, red-winged blackbirds have to start all over while their dominant cousins begin establishing their own territories in what was once redwing territory. Yes, it’s dog-eat-dog even in the avian world.
Living here in the woods, miles from the North Dakota prairie potholes that I spent three summers enjoying while conducting my own wetland and wetland wildlife research work, I saw first-hand how the annual feud between the yellow-heads and redwings played out.
The interactions that I witnessed between the two species weren’t nearly as dramatic as Dr. Crawford had described, but it did indeed occur, especially in wetlands that had the right mix of nesting habitat and water where both species of blackbirds converged and competed on.
Breeding male yellow-headed blackbirds are charismatic looking and behaving birds. With his golden-yellow head and throat, including part of his breast, along with white wing patches, large body size, and loud, raucous calls, there’s simply no mistaking a yellow-headed blackbird for any other species of wild bird. Females sport partly yellow heads, too, although mostly just on their throats.
During the breeding and nesting season, male yellow-heads’ breeding territories are large enough to attract more than one female, sometimes as many as eight or more at a time. The defending male fiercely guards his domain against other males and other avian intruders, including marsh wrens, raptors, and gulls.
And though the territorial male yellow-headed blackbird will help care for his young, he typically only helps feed the nestlings of the first nesting female in his area. The other females that begin nesting shortly after the first female generally are on their own in rearing their youngsters.
While yellow-headed blackbirds are not very abundant throughout Minnesota’s northwood’s wetlands and lakes, healthy populations of the species can be found in the western part of the state, the broad expanses and oxbows of the Mississippi River valley of the southeast, and within large, freshwater marshes near croplands. It’s estimated that the global population is around 11 million strong.
Yellow-headed blackbirds, sometimes affectionately called dandelion blackbirds, are among one of many striking looking species of wild birds in Minnesota. Lucky we are that such colorful and dynamic wetland wildlife exist, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.