Yellow-headed blackbird (Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus)

Male yellow-headed blackbird perched, breeding plumage
IUCN Red List species status – Least Concern LEAST

Top facts

  • The genus and specific name of the yellow-headed blackbird, Xanthocephalus, means ‘yellow-headed’.
  • The yellow-headed blackbird migrates in single-sex flocks.
  • The female yellow-headed blackbird migrates further south than the male.
  • The male yellow-headed blackbird is only territorial during the breeding season and forms large flocks while migrating and overwintering.
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Yellow-headed blackbird fact file

Yellow-headed blackbird description

GenusXanthocephalus (1)

The genus and specific name of the yellow-headed blackbird (Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus) means ‘yellow-headed’, and was given to this species because of the vivid yellow colouration on the head of the male (2). The neck and breast of the male are also yellow, while the rest of the body is black (2) (4), as is a small area around the eyes (4). There are small patches of white on the wings that are particularly visible when the male is in flight (2).

The female yellow-headed blackbird is significantly smaller than the male (2) (4) and its plumage is much less distinctive (2). The body is mostly dull black-brown, with a pale yellow wash to the upper breast. There are also areas of pale yellow above the bill and eyes, and the throat is white (4). Both sexes have black legs and a long, conical bill (3) that is also black (2) (4). The eyes of this species are dark brown (2) (4).

The juvenile yellow-headed blackbird is mostly cinnamon or brown, and the head is slightly lighter than the body (4). The sex of a juvenile can be distinguished by the small patches of white on the wing, which are only present in the male (3).

The male and female yellow-headed blackbird produce dissimilar vocalisations. The male has two songs, including an ‘accenting song’ which is relatively musical and is used to communicate with conspecifics from a distance. The other song is a ‘buzzing song’ which is used to communicate over short distances. The female produces a chatter-like call and both sexes also make a ‘chek’ or ‘chuk’ call (4).

Male length: c. 26.5 cm (2)
Female length: c. 21.5 cm (2)
Male weight: c. 100 g (2)
Female weight: under 60 g (2)
Wingspan: 42 - 44 cm (3)

Yellow-headed blackbird biology

The male yellow-headed blackbird is extremely territorial during the breeding season (2), which runs between May and June (4). The male arrives on the breeding grounds before the female (2) (4) to establish its territory, which is usually between 100 and 600 square metres (4). Territories are not created during winter, when large flocks are formed (2).

The polygamous male yellow-headed blackbird can have up to 16 females in its harem. Some males may not have any females enter their territory during the breeding season, and will go into the territory of another male to mate (2). The female selects the nesting site and builds the nest (2) (3), which is a cup-shaped structure built directly over water from long strips of plant material that are woven between the leaves of aquatic vegetation (2) (4). The nest usually takes between four and five days to complete (4). The average clutch of this species contains two to five eggs (3) (4), which are green-white or grey-white with brown markings across the surface (2) (3). The eggs are incubated by the female for 12 or 13 days (2) (3) (4), and once they have hatched, the female is mostly responsible for feeding the young. Generally, the more females that a male has in his harem, the less it feeds the young (2) (4) and the male may only feed those in the first nest that was built in its territory (3). The young remain in the nest for up to 14 days (3) (4), but continue being fed by the female after leaving the nest (2).

In late August or September, the yellow-headed blackbird leaves its breeding grounds (2) (4) in single-sex flocks to begin its southward migration. The female migrates further south than the male, although both sexes generally arrive in their overwintering grounds between August and September. Northward migration to the breeding grounds usually occurs in February or March (4).

During the breeding season, the diet of the yellow-headed blackbird consists mainly of aquatic insects (2) (3), and in winter it mostly takes seeds and grains such as wheat, oats and maize (4) from agricultural areas (2) (3) (4).


Yellow-headed blackbird range

The breeding range of the yellow-headed blackbird stretches through the western and central United States, and the most easterly point of its distribution is thought to be the Great Lakes. The breeding range of this species also crosses over into Canada, from British Columbia in the west to southwest Ontario in the east. During winter, this species is found in the southern United States in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, as well as in Mexico (2) (5). There are also vagrant populations in the Bahamas, Saint Pierre and Miquelon, Costa Rica, Barbados, Panama, Iceland, Greenland and Cuba (5).


Yellow-headed blackbird habitat

During the breeding season, the yellow-headed blackbird is found in prairies, meadows and parks (2), especially in areas close to freshwater wetlands where there is abundant emergent vegetation (3).

In winter, the yellow-headed blackbird is generally found around open agricultural fields (2) (3) (4) and pastures (4) at low elevations, although some individuals have been found at elevations of up to 2,500 metres (4).


Yellow-headed blackbird status

The yellow-headed blackbird is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

IUCN Red List species status – Least Concern


Yellow-headed blackbird threats

The yellow-headed blackbird is not thought to be globally threatened, although there are certain populations that are declining, especially in Illinois (4). Population declines of this species may be due to habitat degradation from wetland drainage and agricultural chemical usage (2). This species’ tendency to feed on seeds from agricultural fields has also led to conflict with humans, and farmers have been known to trap and shoot individuals found on their land (3). Additionally, the herbicides and pesticides used in agriculture may be ingested while feeding which can be extremely harmful to the birds (2) (3).


Yellow-headed blackbird conservation

There are currently not known to be any conservation measures in place for the yellow-headed blackbird, although it is known to occur in several protected areas in Canada and the United States (4).


Find out more

Find out more about the yellow-headed blackbird:

Find out more about North American bird conservation:



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Aquatic plants whose stems and leaves extend beyond the water’s surface.
A category used in taxonomy, which is below ‘family’ and above ‘species’. A genus tends to contain species that have characteristics in common. The genus forms the first part of a ‘binomial’ scientific species name; the second part is the specific name.
To keep eggs warm so that development is possible.
Mating with more than one partner in the same season.
An extensive area of flat or rolling, predominantly treeless grassland, especially the large tract or plain of central North America.
Describes an animal, a pair of animals or a group that occupies and defends an area.
An area occupied and defended by an animal, a pair of animals or a group.
An individual found outside the normal range of the species.


  1. IUCN Red List (March, 2014)
  2. Twedt, D.J. and Crawford, R.D. (1995) Yellow-headed blackbird (Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus). In: Poole, A. (Ed.) Birds of North America Online. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca. Available at:
  3. All About Birds - Yellow-headed blackbird (March, 2014)
  4. del Hoyo, J. and Fraga, R. (2011) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 16:Tanagers to New World Blackbirds. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. Available at:
  5. BirdLife International - Sabine’s gull (March, 2014)

Image credit

Male yellow-headed blackbird perched, breeding plumage  
Male yellow-headed blackbird perched, breeding plumage

© Gerrit Vyn /

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