Photo: Henry J. Hipp/Flickr Creative Commons

Yellow-headed Blackbird

Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus

The male Yellow-headed Blackbird is impressive to see, but not to hear: it may have the worst song of any North American bird, a hoarse, harsh scraping. Yellow-heads nest in noisy colonies in big cattail marshes of the west and midwest; when not nesting, they gather in flocks in open fields, often with other blackbirds. At some favored points in the southwest in winter, they may be seen in flocks of thousands.
Conservation status Undoubtedly has declined in some areas with draining of marshes; however, still widespread and very common.
Family Blackbirds and Orioles
Habitat Fresh marshes. Forages in fields, open country. Breeds in freshwater sloughs, marshy lake borders, tall cattails growing in water up to 3-4' deep. Forages around marshes and also commonly in open pastures, plowed fields, cattle pens, feedlots.
The male Yellow-headed Blackbird is impressive to see, but not to hear: it may have the worst song of any North American bird, a hoarse, harsh scraping. Yellow-heads nest in noisy colonies in big cattail marshes of the west and midwest; when not nesting, they gather in flocks in open fields, often with other blackbirds. At some favored points in the southwest in winter, they may be seen in flocks of thousands.
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  • adult male
  • adult female
  • adult male
  • adult female
Feeding Behavior

Forages mostly by walking on the ground in open fields or near the water's edge; also forages low in marsh vegetation. Sometimes catches insects in flight. May follow farm machinery in fields to feed on insects and grubs turned up by the plow. Except in nesting season, usually forages in flocks, often associated with other blackbirds.


Eggs

4, sometimes 3-5. Pale gray to pale green, blotched and dotted with brown or gray. Incubation is by female only, 11-13 days. Young: Both parents feed nestlings. Young leave nest after about 9-12 days, but remain among dense marsh plants until they are ready to fly, about 3 weeks after hatching. 1 brood per year, possibly 2.


Young

Both parents feed nestlings. Young leave nest after about 9-12 days, but remain among dense marsh plants until they are ready to fly, about 3 weeks after hatching. 1 brood per year, possibly 2.

Diet

Mostly insects and seeds. Feeds heavily on insects in summer, especially beetles, caterpillars, and grasshoppers, also ants, wasps, and others, plus a few spiders and snails. Young are fed mostly insects. Probably two-thirds of diet consists of seeds, including grass and weed seeds plus waste grain.


Nesting

Typically nests in colonies in marshes, each male selecting territory within colony and defending it against rivals by singing. One male may have as many as 5 mates. Nest: Placed in marsh, firmly lashed to standing vegetation (cattails, bulrushes, reeds) growing in water, usually no more than 3' above water's surface. Nest (built by female) is a bulky, deep cup woven of aquatic plants, lined with dry grass or with fine, dry marsh plants.

Illustration © David Allen Sibley.
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Text © Kenn Kaufman, adapted from
Lives of North American Birds

Migration

Migrates in flocks. Males may tend to winter farther north than females, on average. Strays reach Atlantic Coast, especially in fall.

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Migration

Migrates in flocks. Males may tend to winter farther north than females, on average. Strays reach Atlantic Coast, especially in fall.

  • All Seasons - Common
  • All Seasons - Uncommon
  • Breeding - Common
  • Breeding - Uncommon
  • Winter - Common
  • Winter - Uncommon
  • Migration - Common
  • Migration - Uncommon
Songs and Calls
Harsh, incessant oka-wee-wee and kruck calls, coming from many individuals in a colony, blend into a loud, wavering chorus.
Audio © Lang Elliott, Bob McGuire, Kevin Colver, Martyn Stewart and others.
Learn more about this sound collection.

How climate change could affect this bird's range

In the broadest and most detailed study of its kind, Audubon scientists have used hundreds of thousands of citizen-science observations and sophisticated climate models to predict how birds in the U.S. and Canada will react to climate change.

Learn more

Read more: climate.audubon.org
Blackbirds and Orioles Perching Birds

Yellow-headed Blackbird

The darker the color, the more favorable the climate conditions are for survival. The outlined areas represent approximate current range for each season.

More on reading these maps.

Each map is a visual guide to where a particular bird species may find the climate conditions it needs to survive in the future. We call this the bird’s “climatic range.”

The colors indicate the season in which the bird may find suitable conditions— blue for winter, yellow for summer (breeding), and green for where they overlap (indicating their presence year-round).

The darker the shaded area, the more likely it is the bird species will find suitable climate conditions to survive there.

The outline of the approximate current range for each season remains fixed in each frame, allowing you to compare how the range will expand, contract, or shift in the future.

The first frame of the animation shows where the bird can find a suitable climate today (based on data from 2000). The next three frames predict where this bird’s suitable climate may shift in the future—one frame each for 2020, 2050, and 2080.

You can play or pause the animation with the orange button in the lower left, or select an individual frame to study by clicking on its year.

The darker the color, the more favorable the climate conditions are for survival. The outlined areas represent approximate current range for each season. More on reading these maps.
Winter
Summer

Winter Range
Summer Range
Both Seasons
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