Yellow-headed Blackbird

Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus

(c) Howard B. Eskin
  • ICTERIDAE
  • Blackbirds, Orioles, and allies
  • Passeriformes
  • Tordo cabeciamarillo, Turpial de cabeza amarilla
  • Carouge à tête jaune
Introduction
The well-named Yellow-headed Blackbird nests colonially in the cattails and reeds of western deep-water marshlands. This stocky songbird's snazzy appearance--the male has a saffron-yellow head and chest over a black body--contrasts with its raucous "song," a grating series of rattles followed by a harsh squeal. Despite their name, Yellow-headed Blackbirds are more closely related to Meadowlarks than to other blackbirds.
Appearance Description
The male Yellow-headed Blackbird sports a blazing yellow chest and head, which contrasts sharply  with its jet-black body and thin black mask which, like a blindfold, reaches from the bill to cover the eyes. A white patch at mid-wing, often concealed at rest, flashes boldly in flight. The female's body is brown, extending over her neck and onto her crown. Her face and chest are yellowish brown.. Both sexes appear chunky, with broad wings. Males are significantly larger, weighing up to 100 grams compared with the female's 51 grams. On average, Yellow-headed Blackbirds are 9.5 inches long, with a 15-inch wingspan.
Range Map
Courtesy Kenn Kaufman
Range Distribution
Yellow-headed Blackbirds breed across the upper Midwest, north and westward through much of lower Canada, and west and southward into Arizona and New Mexico. Wintering birds range in flocks from mid-California through the southern third of Arizona, New Mexico, and south through the farmlands of Mexico.
 
A legend for the range map to the right can be found here.
Habitat
Yellow-headed Blackbirds breed over deep water, in freshwater marshes with cattails, bulrushes, or reeds. They avoid dense vegetation. Post-breeding flocks forage on open farmlands and prairies, feedlots, and freshwater wetlands.
Feeding
During breeding, Yellow-headed Blackbirds primarily eat aquatic insects, usually found while walking along the mud at  water's edge. Weed seeds and grains dominate their diet for the rest of the year. Yellow-headed Blackbirds probe with their bills, prying open and flipping over materials to reach food. Mixed-species foraging flocks appear to roll over flat land, as birds at the back fly to the front, where the ground has not yet been gleaned.   
Reproduction
As colonial nesters, Yellow-headed Blackbird males rarely establish isolated territories, regardless of the number of females that they attract. Males and females flock to the breeding site, and males set up territories with various displays. Male Yellow-headed Blackbirds chase rival species from the colony. On average, 16 females will select a territory in a marsh with open water, plenty of channels between stands of vegetation, and vegetation that is not too dense. Although Yellow-headed Blackbird females create a "harem," they are often receptive to intruding males. Pairs do not bond.
 
The female weaves a cupped nest with wet vegetation that tightens as it dries. The clutch consists of 3 to 5 eggs that are greenish- or grayish-white, densely splotched with brown or darker grey. After approximately 12 days, the young hatch, and after another 12 days they fledge, at which time they move into dense vegetation, though they still cannot fly. Males help feed the young, especially in marshes that offer less food. Yellow-headed Blackbirds cooperate in attacking predators, and sometimes nest near Forster's Tern colonies for added protection and warning.
Migration
By day or night, Yellow-headed Blackbirds migrate in thin, elongated flocks. They sort themselves by gender during fall migration, with more males wintering in the northern part of their range, and more females in the south. This species joins other blackbirds at staging roosts.
  • 23,000,000
  • 23,000,000
  • no current conservation concerns
Population Status Trends
Yellow-headed Blackbird colonies are very sensitive to drought, sometimes disappearing from large regions within a decade. Urban development has rendered this species scarce east of the Mississippi River, where it was common only a century ago. Local populations continue to decline. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources estimates an 8 percent annual reduction over the past 20 years.
Conservation Issues
Although Yellow-headed Blackbirds can be common under wet conditions, urban encroachment on wetlands and its associated droughts threaten breeding colonies. Where colonies have been lost, efforts to reintroduce this beautiful songbird have failed. Groups like the Illinois Natural History Survey are seeking ways for wetlands and human settlements to coexist.
 
After breeding, Yellow-headed Blackbirds join large mixed-species forage flocks. These flocks can be perceived as pests by farmers, and the noise and droppings associated with large roosts may be considered undesirable in some residential areas. Farming practices over the past hundred years have probably increased the numbers of Yellow-headed Blackbirds; the modification of these practices can help control them. The selection of grains that are resistant to blackbird predation, and the use of large noise makers have been successful in relocating flocks and reducing damage.
What You Can Do
Enjoy watching this blackbird, with its blazing yellow head, on its breeding territory.
 
For dispersing and relocating Yellow-headed Blackbirds, support the use of natural, non-toxic techniques.
 
Buy organic foods, especially grain products, produced with concern for the environment and the humane control of Yellow-headed Blackbirds and other wild competitors.
 
For actions you can take, including Audubon activities, please visit our resources page.
More Information
Visit our resources page for more information about this species.
Natural History References
Enstrom, David A., Michael P. Ward, and James Herkert. "Urban Conservation of a Wetland Bird Species." INHS Reports: March-April 2000. Illinois Natural History Survey. 25 May 2006.
 
Kaufman, Kenn. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 1996.
 
Sibley, David Allen. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.
 
Twedt, D. J., and R. D. Crawford. 1995. Yellow-headed Blackbird (Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus). In The Birds of North America, No. 192 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, and The American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C.
Conservation Status References
Enstrom, David A., Michael P. Ward, and James Herkert. "Urban Conservation of a Wetland Bird Species." INHS Reports: March-April 2000. Illinois Natural History Survey. 25 May 2006.
 
Kaufman, Kenn. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 1996.
 
Sibley, David Allen. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.
 
Twedt, D. J., and R. D. Crawford. 1995. Yellow-headed Blackbird (Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus). In The Birds of North America, No. 192 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, and The American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C.