Priority Bird
Conservation status Has declined seriously in numbers in recent decades, probably owing to loss of habitat. Probably endangered. Its habit of nesting in dense colonies probably makes it more vulnerable.
Family Blackbirds and Orioles
Habitat Cattail or tule marshes; forages in fields, farms. Breeds in large freshwater marshes, in dense stands of cattails or bulrushes. At all seasons (including when breeding), does most of its foraging in open habitats such as farm fields, pastures, cattle pens, large lawns.
While the Red-winged Blackbird is abundant over most of the continent, the very similar Tricolored Blackbird has a very small range in the Pacific states. It differs in its highly social nesting: in a dense cattail marsh, nests may be packed in close together, only a foot or two apart. Some colonies may have over 100,000 nests, although such large concentrations seem to be growing scarcer in recent years, as the birds shift to smaller (but hopefully more) colonies.

Feeding Behavior

Forages mostly while walking on ground; also sometimes up in shrubs and trees. Usually forages in flocks, particularly outside the breeding season, often associated with Red-winged Blackbirds, other blackbirds, and starlings.


4, sometimes 3-5, rarely 2-6. Pale blue-green, with markings of black, brown, and purple concentrated at larger end. Incubation is by female, about 11 days. Young: Both parents feed nestlings (but female does more). Young leave the nest about 11-14 days after hatching.


Both parents feed nestlings (but female does more). Young leave the nest about 11-14 days after hatching.


Mostly insects and seeds. Feeds on many insects, especially in summer, including caterpillars, beetles, grasshoppers, and others; also spiders. Especially in fall and winter, eats many seeds of grasses and weeds, and waste grain.


Nests in colonies, more densely packed than Red-winged Blackbirds, with nests often only a couple of feet apart. In displaying to attract a mate, male perches on high stalk with feathers fluffed out and tail partly spread, lifts leading edge of wing so that red shoulder patches are prominent, lowers head, and sings. Nest: Placed in marsh in cattails or bulrushes, or in willows at water's edge, sometimes in tall growth in drier fields. Nest (built by female) is bulky open cup, lashed to standing vegetation, made of grass, reeds, leaves, rootlets, lined with fine grass.

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

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Not very migratory, withdrawing only from northernmost nesting areas in winter, but moves around considerably with seasons within its limited range. Colony sites also may shift from year to year.

  • All Seasons - Common
  • All Seasons - Uncommon
  • Breeding - Common
  • Breeding - Uncommon
  • Winter - Common
  • Winter - Uncommon
  • Migration - Common
  • Migration - Uncommon

See a fully interactive migration map for this species on the Bird Migration Explorer.

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Songs and Calls

Calls rather similar to those of the Red-wing, but song is more nasal, less musical.
Audio © Lang Elliott, Bob McGuire, Kevin Colver, Martyn Stewart and others.
Learn more about this sound collection.