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A photo of a Yellow-headed Blackbird (Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus), male
Yellow-headed Blackbird, Male

Yellow-headed Blackbird

Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus

The Yellow-headed Blackbird, Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus, is a striking medium-sized member of the blackbird family. It is the sole representative of its genus, Xanthocephalus, a name that hails from the Greek for 'yellow' and 'head'. These birds exhibit sexual dimorphism; males are predominantly black with a vibrant yellow head and breast, and a white wing patch that may only be visible during flight. Females, on the other hand, are mostly brown with a paler yellow throat and breast. Juveniles share a similar coloration to females but with even duller yellow tones and, in males, white wing patches.

Identification Tips

Adults of this species can be identified by their pointed bills. Males are unmistakable with their black bodies and bright yellow heads and breasts. Females and immature birds are more subdued in color and can be distinguished by their brown plumage and duller yellow areas.

Habitat

The Yellow-headed Blackbird favors marshes across North America, particularly those with abundant cattails, bulrush, and common reeds.

Distribution

These birds breed mainly west of the Great Lakes and migrate to the southwestern United States and Mexico for winter. They are permanent residents in the San Joaquin Valley and the Lower Colorado River Valley of Arizona and California, and are extremely rare vagrants to western Europe.

Behaviour

During migration, Yellow-headed Blackbirds travel in large flocks, often with other bird species, and males and females migrate separately. Males arrive at breeding sites earlier than females. They are known to nest in colonies, often alongside the Red-winged Blackbird, and exhibit territorial behavior during the breeding season.

Song & Calls

The male's song is reminiscent of a rusty hinge, with two distinct types: a lower-pitched "accent song" for long-distance communication and a higher-pitched "buzz song" for closer interactions. Females also produce a "buzz song" consisting of harsh grating sounds, and both sexes emit harsh calls.

Breeding

Yellow-headed Blackbirds build their nests with and attach them to marsh vegetation, often over open water. They nest in colonies and are very territorial during the breeding season.

Diet and Feeding

Their diet consists mainly of seeds throughout the year, with insects being a significant component during the summer. They forage in various environments, including marshes, fields, and the ground, and employ different methods such as flipping stones and catching insects from water surfaces. Females predominantly feed their young with insects from the Odonata order.

Conservation status

The Yellow-headed Blackbird's population is currently stable, with wetland conditions being a critical factor in their numbers. They are listed as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List. However, changes to wetland environments, such as drainage and the use of herbicides/pesticides, can impact their populations.

Yellow-headed Blackbird Sounds

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