Yellow-headed Blackbirds in ‘disguise’

24 Jan

Yellow-headed blackbirds on an ocotillo.

One morning last mid-May, I heard a cacophony of clacking, clicking and gawking. Practicing my tracker’s ‘stealth walking’, I got close enough to see a small group of birds pecking at the ground near the edge of a dropoff. I remember smiling while watching them; they seemed like little jesters at a jumping contest. Some birds would almost jump on their partner, while the aware victim rapidly jumped away only to jump into another’s space. What struck me was the variation in plumage; few birds looked like each other.

I slowly and carefully stalked away to retrieve my camera. Returning again, I was able to get within only fifty feet. I have found that the very process of bringing a camera up to my eye often scares birds away. (Photographing birds is a lesson in patience and slow movement.)

After uploading the photos to my laptop, it took quite some investigation to identify these birds. They are not well documented as typical of the Big Bend region, neither summer or winter habitat. However, they are noted to occasionally migrate through Texas between their summer and winter habitats.

These birds were finally identified as Yellow-headed blackbird (Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus). Occasional visitors to the southern Big Bend area, they are not always easy to identify. Although they are typical of most blackbirds – fairly large, with stout body, large head, and long, conical bill – this species has several color morphs. In other words, they all don’t have the same color pattern.

Most grown males have a striking yellow head and breast with a black band around the eyes, and white patch on the wing shoulders. And this is what you will see depicted in the guide books. However, the females and juveniles, both male and female – and even immature males! – don’t sport this colorful golden hood and cowl.

Females are often dusky brown with a buffy or faint yellow breast, and a belly streaked with white. Juveniles are dark brown with buffy edging on wings and back, heads often tawny with mixtures of faint yellow, black and white. Immature males often resemble females, but with narrow white bands on the tips of wing feathers.

Typical of most blackbirds, this species is usually found in large groups, even commingling with birds of other types. They may also forage individually, but seldom for too long.  Northbound Yellow-headed blackbirds pass through Texas from March through June, with the largest populations between early April and late May. Their breeding range is historically in the Great Plains area of the North America (N of TX and up into S Canada) and west to the Cascade and Sierra Nevada mountain sides. Their winter range is west of TX and south into Mexico. However, changes in bird migration and habitat are well documented, corresponding with climate change.

This group was photographed in the Solitario area mid-May of last year. They stayed around for several days before heading off to parts unknown.

Color morph representations of the Yellow-headed blackbird.

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