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Yellow-Headed Blackbird

Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus


As both its scientific and common names suggest, the male of this species is very easily identified by his bright yellow head and chest and black body with prominent white patches on each wing.

male yellow-headed blackbird

The female can be best identified by her duller-yellow head, throat, and breast. The rest of her body is grayish-brown, and she has white streaks extending down her breast. Juveniles are similar in appearance to the females.

female yellow-headed blackbird

juvenile ywllow-headed blackbird

Both males and females are 8.3-10.2 inches long, with a wingspan of 16.5-17.3 inches, and have sharply pointed black bills.

Distribution and Habitat

During the summer, the yellow-headed blackbird's range extends from central-interior British Columbia south through the central-interior west coast to northeastern Baja California, east to western Ontario and northern Missouri. During the winter, it is found from California to Texas, as well as in Mexico, and casually in Costa Rica.

distribution of the yellow-headed blackbird

Yellow-headed blackbirds breed and roost in freshwater wetlands with dense, emergent vegetation such as cattails. During migration and over the winter months, they are found in open, cultivated lands, in fields, and in pastures.


The yellow-headed blackbird typically nests in colonies in marshes, each male staking out a territory and defending it against rivals by singing. Females arrive to the area a few days later and are pursued by the males who sit on elevated vegetation with a spread tail and half-open wings and "sing." Unfortunately for birdsong lovers, this bird's "song" is little more than a hoarse, harsh scraping. Depending on the quality of his territory, a male may "convince" as many as eight females to nest within his area.

The female builds a bulky, woven nest of wet vegetation in the reeds over water. As the nest materials dry, it shrinks, tightening its support on the emergent vegetation upon which it is attached. Nest building takes two to four days, and the nest is suspended up to three feet above the water.

Three to five pale gray to pale green, blotched and dotted with brown or gray, are incubated by the female along for 11-13 days. The male helps feed nestlings, but usually only in the first nest established in his territory; the other females have to feed their young all by themselves. 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.


The yellow-headed blackbird feeds by gleaning insects and seeds from plants and from the ground, and by catching insects in the air. It may also follow farm machinery in fields to feed on insects and grubs turned up by the plow.

Scientific Classification

phylum Chordata
subphylum Vertebrata
class Aves
order Passeriformes
family Iceteridae
genus & species Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus

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The Robinson Library >> Science >> Zoology >> Birds >> Order Passeriformes

This page was last updated on March 22, 2018.