…when I first heard them, I thought something was dying or being hurt. Then I realized it was just one of these birds “singing”.
Every time I visit Yellowstone in summer, I see and hear the beautiful male Yellow-headed Blackbirds as they establish and defend territories in marshy ponds. They can be regularly observed at wetland areas on the drive through Paradise Valley, and in the northern part of the park at Floating Island Lake, and in ponds along the gravel drive along Slough Creek.
The males have proven difficult to photograph over the years, since they are usually down in a marsh, partially obscured by grasses and twigs, But I keep trying, partly because the males are just so striking, and partly because they are just fascinating to watch.
After my group departed, I spent a couple of hours sitting near a productive Yellow-headed Blackbird habitat along Slough Creek, watching the males display. I also just like sitting in one spot and observing whatever comes along, and in places like this, you usually don’t have to wait very long. There were two adult males jockeying for position out in the marsh grasses, “singing” for all they were worth.
The song and singing behavior of the brilliant male is quite distinctive. They usually perch in a prominent spot, although, much to the dismay of the photographer in me, they are frequently at least partially obscured by vegetation. After a few notes, they throw their head back and to the side, puff out their neck feathers, and let out their patented screechy/buzzy call. It has been described in a variety of non-complimentary terms…here is a sampler…a grating series of rattles followed by a harsh squeal; a few musical notes followed by a screeching buzz, rather like a heavy door swinging on a very rusty metal hinge; and finally, one of the most unusual of all bird calls and is decidedly unmusical, with its various hoarse chuckles, cacophonous strangling noises, and honking gurgles. I don’t find it all that unpleasant, just unusual. Visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology web site to hear a sample of their song.
Males are the only North American bird with a bright yellow head and chest, black body, and bright white patches on their wings when open. Females lack the wing patches, and are brownish, with a faint yellow patch on their neck and upper breast.
While I was attempting to get a decent image of a male out in the marsh (without much success), one surprised me by flying up to a dead shrub near me in a great position for some images.
He gave a few notes, perhaps challenging some of the immature males out in the marsh, and then flew back to claim his territory.
I almost headed back to the car at that point, but am glad I didn’t, as I soon witnessed some interesting feeding behavior. Every so often, a blackbird flew out of the marsh and walked among the shorter vegetation on the slopes, presumably picking at insects in the grass. But one adult male had his own method of finding bugs which I dubbed, the chip flip.
I had read they sometimes have been observed flipping stones to get bugs, but this guy was walking around flipping every bison poo pile he came across, presumably hoping to grab one of the many insects associated with bison “chips”. A few of the dried scat piles were pretty large, requiring the bird to “put his shoulder into it” to get it all the way over. He may not be much of a songster, but he is a champion chip flipper, to be sure.