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.
Photo Gallery
  • 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.

Text © Kenn Kaufman, adapted from
Lives of North American Birds

Illustration © David Allen Sibley.
Learn more about these drawings.

Migration

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

Help this bird. Donate today
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.

Explore Similar Birds