Scientific Name: Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus
Description: Yellow-headed blackbirds have a large head with a sharply pointed bill, a long tail, and stout body. Males are black with yellow heads and chests and white patches where their wings bend. Females and immature males are generally gray-brown with a duller yellow head.
Size: Both male and female birds grow to be between 8 to 10 inches long with a 15-inch average wingspan.
Diet: They are omnivores, eating both animal and plant foods. The often forage on the ground to eat seeds, spiders, grasshoppers, grains and nuts. They eat mostly aquatic insects in the summer and seeds in the winter months. They form flocks to feed on seeds of wild plants and waste grain in farm fields, taking turns feeding at the front of the flock.
Predation: Snakes, red foxes, raccoons, skunks, gulls, marsh wrens and other birds prey on eggs or young.
Typical Lifespan: The average appears to be about 11 years but some have been reported to live up to 18 years.
Habitat: They nest in primarily in large wetlands but also in mountain meadows and along the edges of ponds and rivers. They spend the winter months primarily in farm fields, parklands and meadows.
Range: Yellow-headed blackbirds can generally be found from the Mississippi River westwards. They spend the summer in the west-central U.S. and Canada and the winter in the western U.S. from California to Texas and south to Mexico and Central America.
Life History and Reproduction: Breeding takes place in wetlands. Males establish and defend territories to attract multiple females. Females create nests of wet vegetation that overhang the water among reeds, bulrushes, cattails and sometimes wild rice. The nests shrink and tighten on the supporting vegetation as the wet vegetation dries. They lay 3-5 eggs that take about 11-13 days to hatch. They generally have one brood per season.
Communication: To attract females the male yellow-headed blackbirds sing short, raspy songs.
Fun Fact: The yellow-headed blackbird and red-winged blackbird are often found in the same habitat in the western United States, but yellow-headed blackbirds are the larger, more dominant species. They generally nest in deeper water near the center of larger wetlands while red-winged blackbirds nest along the edges in shallower water.
Conservation Status: Yellow-headed blackbirds are abundant and secure through most of their range, although they are declining in some areas in the eastern parts of their range. They are sensitive to drought and loss of wetland habitat, as well as pesticides applied to farm fields where they forage in the winter.
All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Animal Diversity Web, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology
BirdWeb, Seattle Audubon Society
Montana Field Guide, State of Montana
NatureServe Explorer: An Online Encyclopedia of Life