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Help develop a Bird ID tool!

Yellow-headed Blackbird

Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: ICTERIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

With a golden head, a white patch on black wings, and a call that sounds like a rusty farm gate opening, the Yellow-headed Blackbird demands your attention. Look for them in western and prairie wetlands, where they nest in reeds directly over the water. They’re just as impressive in winter, when huge flocks seem to roll across farm fields. Each bird gleans seeds from the ground, then leapfrogs over its flock mates to the front edge of the ever-advancing troupe.

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Keys to identification Help

Blackbirds
Blackbirds
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Yellow-headed Blackbirds are fairly large blackbirds, with a stout body, a large head, and a long, conical bill.

  • Color Pattern

    Males are striking blackbirds with yellow heads and chests, and black bodies with prominent white patches at the bend of the wing. Females and immatures are brown instead of black, with duller yellow heads. Immature males show some white at the bend of the wing, while females don’t.

  • Behavior

    Yellow-headed Blackbirds breed in loose colonies, and males mate with several females. During the breeding season, they eat insects and aquatic invertebrates. They form huge flocks in winter, often mixing with other species of blackbirds, and feed on seeds and grains in cultivated fields.

  • Habitat

    Yellow-headed Blackbirds breed and roost in freshwater wetlands with dense, emergent vegetation such as cattails. They often forage in fields, typically wintering in large, open agricultural areas.

Range Map Help

Yellow-headed Blackbird Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

  • Adult male

    Yellow-headed Blackbird

    Adult male
    • Large, stocky blackbird with bright yellow head and chest
    • Solid black body
    • White wing patch just barely visible when wings are folded
    • Black at base of bill and around eye
    • © Ganesh Jayaraman, Marble Springs Road, Sierra Valley, California, June 2010
  • Adult female

    Yellow-headed Blackbird

    Adult female
    • Large, stocky blackbird with heavy, pointed bill
    • Mostly dark overall with yellow on face and breast
    • Relatively short tail
    • © Albert Ovo, Edwin B. Forsythe NWR, Oceanville, New Jersey, September 2010
  • Adult male

    Yellow-headed Blackbird

    Adult male
    • Distinctive with golden yellow head and breast and contrasting dark body
    • Heavy, pointed bill
    • Black at base of bill and around eye
    • © Mike Wisnicki, Grand Forks, British Columbia, Canada, June 2010
  • Adult female

    Yellow-headed Blackbird

    Adult female
    • Large, pot-bellied blackbird
    • Mostly dark brown with yellow on face and upper breast
    • Sometimes streaked on breast
    • Heavy, sharply-pointed black bill
    • © Mike Wisnicki, Grand Forks, British Columbia, Canada, June 2011
  • Adult male

    Yellow-headed Blackbird

    Adult male
    • Large, stocky blackbird
    • Distinctive, contrasting plumage with glowing yellow on head and chest, and black on body
    • Heavy, sharply pointed black bill
    • White wing patch slightly visible on perched bird
    • © Pat Kavanagh, Alberta, Canada, May 2010
  • Juvenile

    Yellow-headed Blackbird

    Juvenile
    • Large, stocky blackbird
    • Sharply pointed bill
    • Tawny/buffy head
    • Dark wings and tail with some buffy/golden edges
    • © Kurt Kirchmeier, Saskatchewan, Canada, July 2012
  • Adult male

    Yellow-headed Blackbird

    Adult male
    • Large, stocky blackbird with bright yellow head
    • Bright white patch on wing obvious in flight
    • Stout, sharply-pointed black bill
    • © Roger P. Kirchen, Riviere Qui Barre, Alberta, Canada, June 2012
  • Adult male with adult females

    Yellow-headed Blackbird

    Adult male with adult females
    • Male in middle shows bright yellow head and breast and black body
    • Females show dark brown bodies and more limited yellow on upper breast and face
    • Stocky overall, with heavy, sharply pointed bill
    • © Mike Forsman, Ventura County, California, May 2010

Similar Species

  • Adult female

    Red-winged Blackbird

    Adult female
    • Can show yellow on face, but smaller and more slender than Yellow-headed Blackbird
    • Heavily streaked overall
    • White eyebrow stripe
    • © Anne Elliot, Somerset, May 2011

Similar Species

Male Yellow-headed Blackbirds are hard to mistake for other species. Female Red-winged Blackbirds are smaller than Yellow-headed Blackbirds; they also have heavily streaked underparts and less yellow in the face and throat.

Backyard Tips

Yellow-headed Blackbirds may visit feeders to eat seeds and grains, including sunflower seeds.

Find This Bird

In the Midwest and West, look for Yellow-headed Blackbirds both in freshwater wetlands and in nearby farm fields. Though they are striking in appearance, these birds spend a substantial time perched out of view in cattails or reeds, so listen for their harsh check calls and bizarre grinding, buzzing songs in order to pinpoint their location. When searching in farm fields, look for large concentrations of blackbirds and then scan them carefully. If the bulk of the birds are Red-winged Blackbirds or some other species, don’t despair—focus on finding a white wing patch or yellow head among the other species.