Living Bird Magazine
Yellow-headed BlackbirdXanthocephalus xanthocephalus
- ORDER: Passeriformes
- FAMILY: Icteridae
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.More ID Info
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.
- Tordo Cabeciamarillo (Spanish)
- Carouge à tête jaune (French)
Yellow-headed Blackbirds may visit feeders to eat seeds and grains, including sunflower seeds.
- Cool Facts
- The Yellow-headed Blackbird often nests in the same marsh as the Red-winged Blackbird. The larger Yellow-headed Blackbird is dominant to the Red-winged Blackbird, and displaces the smaller blackbird from the prime nesting spots. The Yellow-headed Blackbird is strongly aggressive toward Marsh Wrens too, probably because of the egg-destroying habits of the wrens. When the Yellow-headed Blackbird finishes breeding and leaves the marsh, Marsh Wrens expand into former blackbird territories.
- The male Yellow-headed Blackbird defends a small territory of prime nesting reeds. He may attract up to eight females to nest within his area. 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.
- In 1825 Charles Lucien Bonaparte, nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, gave the first detailed description of the Yellow-headed Blackbird, which was collected in 1820 by Thomas Say and Sir John Richardson.
- Because Yellow-headed Blackbirds always build their nests over the water, nestlings sometimes fall in and have to swim short distances to vegetation.
- Pleistocene fossils of Yellow-headed Blackbirds (from 100,000 years ago) have been dug up in California, New Mexico, and Utah.
- The Yellow-headed Blackbird’s scientific name, Xanthocephalus, means “yellow head.”
- The oldest Yellow-headed Blackbird on record was at least 11 years, 8 months old. It had been banded in Saskatchewan and was found in Nebraska.