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Overview

Brief Summary

Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus

A large (8-11 inches) blackbird, the male Yellow-headed Blackbird is most easily identified by its black body, black wings with white wing patches, yellow head and throat, and black facial mask between the eyes and the bill. Female Yellow-headed Blackbirds are dull brown on the head and body and yellow on the breast. Males are unmistakable in this species’ range, while females may be distinguished from other dull female blackbirds by this species’ characteristic yellow breast pattern. The Yellow-headed Blackbird breeds in the western United States and Canada, primarily on the Great Plains and interior west, but also in California, the Colorado River valley, and the Great Lakes region. Most populations migrate south to the desert southwest, Texas, and northern Mexico during the winter, while the Colorado River valley populations are non-migratory. Individual Yellow-headed Blackbirds occasionally spend the winter in central California and Florida, while others may turn up in the east at any time of the year. Yellow-headed Blackbirds primarily breed in marshes and flooded grasslands. On migration and during the winter, this species may also visit drier habitats, such as fields and meadows. Yellow-headed Blackbirds primarily eat small insects during the summer, switching over to a plant-based diet (mainly seeds and grains) during the winter. In appropriate habitat, Yellow-headed Blackbirds may be seen foraging for food on the ground or on the stalks of marsh grasses. Birdwatchers may also listen for this species’ song, a strange combination of slurred, buzzing, liquid, and trilling notes. Yellow-headed Blackbirds are primarily active during the day.

Threat Status: Least concern

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Distribution

During the summer, the yellow-headed blackbird migrates north to the west-central portions of Canada and the United States. Its range extends as far west as central-interior British Columbia, moving directly south through the central-interior west coast to northeastern Baja California. The eastern edge of the Yellow-headed Blackbird's range extends from western Ontario to northern Missouri.

During the winter, it can be found from California to Texas as well as in Mexico and casually in Costa Rica.

Biogeographic Regions: nearctic (Native ); neotropical (Native )

  • Stokes, D., L. Stokes. 1996. Stokes Field Guide to Birds. New York: Little, Brown, and Co..
  • Ditital Atlas of Idaho version 1.3, 2000. "Digital Atlas of Idaho: Yellow-headed Blackbird" (On-line). Accessed September 30, 2000 at http://imnh.isu.edu/digitalatlas.
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occurs (regularly, as a native taxon) in multiple nations

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National Distribution

Canada

Origin: Native

Regularity: Regularly occurring

Currently: Present

Confidence: Confident

Type of Residency: Breeding

United States

Origin: Native

Regularity: Regularly occurring

Currently: Present

Confidence: Confident

Type of Residency: Year-round

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Global Range: BREEDS: central-interior British Columbia east to extreme western Ontario and northwestern Ohio, south to southern California, northeastern Baja California, New Mexico, northern Texas, northern Missouri, and northwestern Ohio. WINTERS: central California, central Arizona, southern New Mexico, and Texas south to southern Baja California, Oaxaca and Veracruz (AOU 1983), casually to Costa Rica, accidental in Panama.

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Geographic Range

During the summer, the yellow-headed blackbird migrates north to the west-central portions of Canada and the United States. Its range extends as far west as central-interior British Columbia, moving directly south through the central-interior west coast to northeastern Baja California. The eastern edge of the Yellow-headed Blackbird's range extends from western Ontario to northern Missouri.

During the winter, it can be found from California to Texas as well as in Mexico and casually in Costa Rica.

Biogeographic Regions: nearctic (Native ); neotropical (Native )

  • Stokes, D., L. Stokes. 1996. Stokes Field Guide to Birds. New York: Little, Brown, and Co..
  • Ditital Atlas of Idaho version 1.3, 2000. "Digital Atlas of Idaho: Yellow-headed Blackbird" (On-line). Accessed September 30, 2000 at http://imnh.isu.edu/digitalatlas.
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Range

S Canada to n Baja and s US; > to central Mexico.
  • Clements, J. F., T. S. Schulenberg, M. J. Iliff, D. Roberson, T. A. Fredericks, B. L. Sullivan, and C. L. Wood. 2014. The eBird/Clements checklist of birds of the world: Version 6.9. Downloaded from http://www.birds.cornell.edu/clementschecklist/download/

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Physical Description

Morphology

His bright yellow hood and black body best identify the male Yellow-headed Blackbird. A white patch on his wing can be seen both while perched or flying. The female's coloring is more subdued. She can be best identified by her duller-yellow supercilium, throat, and breast. The rest of her body is grayish-brown, and she has white streaks extending down her breast. Juveniles are similar in appearance to the females.

Both male and female Yellow-headed Blackbirds are 9.5 inches (24 cm) long and have sharply pointed black bills. (Gough et al. 1988; Stokes and Stokes 1996)

Average mass: 65 g.

Other Physical Features: endothermic ; bilateral symmetry

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Physical Description

His bright yellow hood and black body best identify the male Yellow-headed Blackbird. A white patch on his wing can be seen both while perched or flying. The female's coloring is more subdued. She can be best identified by her duller-yellow supercilium, throat, and breast. The rest of her body is grayish-brown, and she has white streaks extending down her breast. Juveniles are similar in appearance to the females.

Both male and female Yellow-headed Blackbirds are 9.5 inches (24 cm) long and have sharply pointed black bills. (Gough et al. 1988; Stokes and Stokes 1996)

Average mass: 65 g.

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Size

Length: 24 cm

Weight: 80 grams

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Ecology

Habitat

Yellow-headed blackbirds are found in freshwater marshes during the summer. They particularly like to live amongst cattails, tule, and bulrush. During migration and over the winter months, the Yellow-headed Blackbird is found in open, cultivated lands, in fields, and in pastures.

Terrestrial Biomes: savanna or grassland ; forest

Aquatic Biomes: lakes and ponds; rivers and streams

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Habitat and Ecology

Systems
  • Terrestrial
  • Freshwater
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Comments: BREEDING: Fresh-water marshes of cattail, tule or bulrushes (AOU 1983). The nest is a basketlike structure of wet grasses, reeds, cattails woven around stems. NON-BREEDING: In migration and winter also in open cultivated lands, pastures and fields (AOU 1983).

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Yellow-headed blackbirds are found in freshwater marshes during the summer. They particularly like to live amongst cattails, tule, and bulrush. During migration and over the winter months, the Yellow-headed Blackbird is found in open, cultivated lands, in fields, and in pastures.

Terrestrial Biomes: savanna or grassland ; forest

Aquatic Biomes: lakes and ponds; rivers and streams

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Migration

Non-Migrant: No. All populations of this species make significant seasonal migrations.

Locally Migrant: Yes. At least some populations of this species make local extended movements (generally less than 200 km) at particular times of the year (e.g., to breeding or wintering grounds, to hibernation sites).

Locally Migrant: Yes. At least some populations of this species make annual migrations of over 200 km.

Generally a long-distance migrant; migrations more localized in some areas of California. Males precede females in migration.

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Trophic Strategy

Insects are the favorite food of the Yellow-headed Blackbird. It also forages on the ground to eat seeds, spiders, grass, and forb seeds. This blackbird can be seen foraging in fields, meadows, ranches, agricultural areas, and farms.

Animal Foods: insects

Plant Foods: seeds, grains, and nuts

Primary Diet: omnivore

  • Ehrich, P., D. Dobkin, D. Wheye. 1988. The Birder's Handbook. New York: Simon & Schuster Inc..
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Comments: Feeds on insects, seeds, and grain. Searches for food while walking along the ground or perched on seed-bearing plant; forages in fields and on muddy ground near water.

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Food Habits

Insects are the favorite food of the Yellow-headed Blackbird. It also forages on the ground to eat seeds, Araneae, Insecta, grass, and forb seeds. This blackbird can be seen foraging in fields, meadows, ranches, agricultural areas, and farms.

Animal Foods: insects

Plant Foods: seeds, grains, and nuts

  • Ehrich, P., D. Dobkin, D. Wheye. 1988. The Birder's Handbook. New York: Simon & Schuster Inc..
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General Ecology

Gregarious, often with much larger flocks of red-winged blackbirds in winter (Stiles and Skutch 1989).

Marsh wren may disrupt some nesting attempts (Bump 1986). In Manitoba, predation caused the failure of 51% of nests over two years, and the marsh wren was the most important nest predator (Picman and Isabelle 1995, Auk 112:183-191). Blackbird aggression may exclude marsh wrens from breeding areas (Leonard and Picman 1986). Small breeding territories, but forages up to 1.6 kilometers from nesting area (Willson 1966).

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Life History and Behavior

Behavior

Perception Channels: visual ; tactile ; acoustic ; chemical

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Life Expectancy

Average lifespan

Status: wild:
150 months.

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Lifespan/Longevity

Average lifespan

Status: wild:
150 months.

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Lifespan, longevity, and ageing

Maximum longevity: 18 years
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Reproduction

A polygynous breeder, the male Yellow-headed Blackbird stakes out his claim in a habitat of reeds over permanent open water. Females arrive to the area a few days later and are pursued by the males who sit on elevated vegetation with a spread tail and half-open wings and "sing." Sadly for human listeners, his song is composed of short, choked notes that sound more like a saw grating metal than a Romeo in love. The male Yellow-headed Blackbird may be able to secure up to as many as six mates depending on the quality of his territory. Male Yellow-headed Blackbirds who acquire new territory do not destroy broods sired by the previous territorial male. This tolerance for unrelated young may help them attract new mates as the females may mate and lay a second clutch with the new male.

The female builds a bulky, woven nest of wet vegetation in the reeds over water. As the nest materials dry, it shrinks, tightening its support on the emergent vegetation upon which it is attached. Nest building takes two to four days, and the nest is suspended ½ foot to three feet above the water.

The female Yellow-headed blackbird lays 3-5 greenish-white eggs with dark marks. Incubation lasts 11-13 days, and the chicks are altricial. They fledge within 9-12 days of hatching, and during their time in the nest, both parents feed them. For the first four days after birth, the chicks are fed at least partly by regurgitation. The amount of begging for food by Yellow-headed Blackbird chicks is related to the amount of food the parents bring to the nest. As nestlings, male Yellow-headed Blackbirds are significantly larger than their female counterparts. Yellow-headed Blackbirds only raise one (possibly two) broods each summer while their neighbors, the Red-winged Blackbirds, raises two to three broods (Elrich et al. 1988; Ortega and Cruz 1992; Gori et al. 1996; Stokes and Stokes 1996; Price 1998)

Key Reproductive Features: iteroparous ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); sexual ; oviparous

Average time to hatching: 12 days.

Average eggs per season: 4.

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Clutch size is 3-5. Incubation lasts 12-13 days, by female. Young leave nest 9-12 days after hatching; unable to fly until about 21 days old (Terres 1980).

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A polygynous breeder, the male Yellow-headed Blackbird stakes out his claim in a habitat of reeds over permanent open water. Females arrive to the area a few days later and are pursued by the males who sit on elevated vegetation with a spread tail and half-open wings and "sing." Sadly for human listeners, his song is composed of short, choked notes that sound more like a saw grating metal than a Romeo in love. The male Yellow-headed Blackbird may be able to secure up to as many as six mates depending on the quality of his territory. Male Yellow-headed Blackbirds who acquire new territory do not destroy broods sired by the previous territorial male. This tolerance for unrelated young may help them attract new mates as the females may mate and lay a second clutch with the new male.

The female builds a bulky, woven nest of wet vegetation in the reeds over water. As the nest materials dry, it shrinks, tightening its support on the emergent vegetation upon which it is attached. Nest building takes two to four days, and the nest is suspended ½ foot to three feet above the water.

The female Yellow-headed blackbird lays 3-5 greenish-white eggs with dark marks. Incubation lasts 11-13 days, and the chicks are altricial. They fledge within 9-12 days of hatching, and during their time in the nest, both parents feed them. For the first four days after birth, the chicks are fed at least partly by regurgitation. The amount of begging for food by Yellow-headed Blackbird chicks is related to the amount of food the parents bring to the nest. As nestlings, male Yellow-headed Blackbirds are significantly larger than their female counterparts. Yellow-headed Blackbirds only raise one (possibly two) broods each summer while their neighbors, the Red-winged Blackbirds, raises two to three broods (Elrich et al. 1988; Ortega and Cruz 1992; Gori et al. 1996; Stokes and Stokes 1996; Price 1998)

Average time to hatching: 12 days.

Average eggs per season: 4.

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Molecular Biology and Genetics

Molecular Biology

Barcode data: Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus

The following is a representative barcode sequence, the centroid of all available sequences for this species.


There are 3 barcode sequences available from BOLD and GenBank.

Below is a sequence of the barcode region Cytochrome oxidase subunit 1 (COI or COX1) from a member of the species.

See the BOLD taxonomy browser for more complete information about this specimen and other sequences.

CCTATACCTAATTTTCGGCGCATGAGCCGGAATAGTGGGTACCGCCCTAAGCCTCCTCATCCGAGCAGAACTAGGCCAACCTGGAGCCCTTCTGGGAGACGACCAAGTCTACAATGTAGTCGTCACAGCCCACGCTTTCGTAATAATCTTCTTCATAGTCATGCCAATTATAATCGGAGGCTTCGGAAACTGACTAGTCCCTCTAATAATTGGAGCCCCAGATATAGCATTCCCACGAATAAACAACATAAGCTTCTGACTGCTCCCTCCCTCTTTCCTCCTCCTCCTAGCCTCCTCCACAGTCGAAGCAGGCGTAGGTACAGGCTGAACAGTCTATCCCCCACTAGCAGGCAACCTAGCCCACGCCGGAGCCTCAGTCGACCTTGCAATTTTCTCCCTACACTTAGCCGGTATCTCCTCAATTCTAGGGGCAATCAACTTCATTACAACAGCAATCAACATAAAACCCCCTGCCCTGTCACAATACCAAACCCCCCTATTCGTTTGATCAGTACTAATTACTGCAGTACTCCTACTACTATCCCTTCCAGTCCTCGCCGCAGGAATCACAATACTCCTCACAGATCGTAACCTCAACACCACATTCTTCGACCCTGCCGGAGGAGGAGACCCTGTACTGTACCAACACCTCTTCTGATTCTTTGGCCACCCANNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNN
-- end --

Download FASTA File

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Statistics of barcoding coverage: Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus

Barcode of Life Data Systems (BOLDS) Stats
Public Records: 6
Specimens with Barcodes: 6
Species With Barcodes: 1
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Conservation

Conservation Status

Yellow-headed Blackbirds are widespread, abundant, and secure throughout most of their range. The Eastern and Central Breeding Bird Surveys have shown increases in Yellow-headed Blackbird populations of around 2% per year from 1966-1993 while the Christmas Bird Counts have recorded decreases in populations of more than 2% per year. (Stokes and Stokes 1996; Digital Atlas of Idaho 2000). This is a species of special concern in Michigan and in California.

US Migratory Bird Act: protected

US Federal List: no special status

CITES: no special status

State of Michigan List: special concern

IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: least concern

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IUCN Red List Assessment


Red List Category
LC
Least Concern

Red List Criteria

Version
3.1

Year Assessed
2012

Assessor/s
BirdLife International

Reviewer/s
Butchart, S. & Symes, A.

Contributor/s

Justification
This species has an extremely large range, and hence does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the range size criterion (Extent of Occurrence <20,000 km2 combined with a declining or fluctuating range size, habitat extent/quality, or population size and a small number of locations or severe fragmentation). The population trend appears to be increasing, and hence the species does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the population trend criterion (>30% decline over ten years or three generations). The population size is extremely large, and hence does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the population size criterion (<10,000 mature individuals with a continuing decline estimated to be >10% in ten years or three generations, or with a specified population structure). For these reasons the species is evaluated as Least Concern.
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National NatureServe Conservation Status

Canada

Rounded National Status Rank: N5B - Secure

United States

Rounded National Status Rank: N5B,N5N : N5B: Secure - Breeding, N5N: Secure - Nonbreeding

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NatureServe Conservation Status

Rounded Global Status Rank: G5 - Secure

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Yellow-headed Blackbirds are widespread, abundant, and secure throughout most of their range. The Eastern and Central Breeding Bird Surveys have shown increases in Yellow-headed Blackbird populations of around 2% per year from 1966-1993 while the Christmas Bird Counts have recorded decreases in populations of more than 2% per year. (Stokes and Stokes 1996; Digital Atlas of Idaho 2000). This is a species of special concern in Michigan and in California.

IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: least concern

US Migratory Bird Act: protected

US Federal List: no special status

CITES: no special status

State of Michigan List: special concern

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Population

Population Trend
Increasing
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Threats

Comments: Local declines have occurred due to wetland drainage, development, and succession toward closed marsh communities (Herkert 1992).

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Management

Management Requirements: Artificial water level control and prescribed burning may be effective in maintaining suitable habitat conditions.

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Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems

Benefits

In the spring, several species of blackbirds including the Yellow-headed Blackbird feed on newly planted seed in agricultural fields. They are therefore somewhat responsible for losses farmers absorb in missing crops. (Atkinson 1969)

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As an insect eater, the Yellow-headed Blackbird may benefit humans by eating potentially harmful (or painful) insects such as crop-eating grasshoppers.

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Economic Uses

Comments: Along with other blackbirds and grackles, damages sunflower crops in the northern Great Plains (Cummings et al. 1989), where populations increased from the 1960s to the 1980s.

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Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

In the spring, several species of blackbirds including the Yellow-headed Blackbird feed on newly planted seed in agricultural fields. They are therefore somewhat responsible for losses farmers absorb in missing crops. (Atkinson 1969)

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Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

As an insect eater, the Yellow-headed Blackbird may benefit humans by eating potentially harmful (or painful) insects such as crop-eating grasshoppers.

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Wikipedia

Yellow-headed Blackbird

The yellow-headed blackbird (Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus) is a medium-sized blackbird, and the only member of the genus Xanthocephalus.

Adults have a pointed bill. The adult male is mainly black with a yellow head and breast; they have a white wing patch sometimes only visible in flight. The adult female is mainly brown with a dull yellow throat and breast. Both genders resemble the respective genders of the smaller yellow-hooded blackbird of South America.

Female
Juvenile

The breeding habitat of the yellow-headed blackbird is cattail (Typha species) marshes in North America, mainly west of the Great Lakes. The nest is built with and attached to marsh vegetation. They nest in colonies, often sharing their habitat closely with the red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus). During the breeding and nesting season the males are very territorial and spend much of their time perched on reed stalks and displaying or chasing off intruders.

These birds migrate in the winter to the southwestern United States and Mexico. They often migrate in huge flocks with other species of birds. The only regions of the United States where these blackbirds are permanent residents are the San Joaquin Valley and the Lower Colorado River Valley of Arizona and California. It is an extremely rare vagrant to western Europe, with some records suspected to refer to escapes from captivity.

These birds forage in the marsh, in fields or on the ground; they sometimes catch insects in flight. They mainly eat seeds and insects. Outside of the nesting period, they often feed in flocks, often with related species.

This bird's song resembles the grating of a rusty hinge.

References[edit]

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Names and Taxonomy

Taxonomy

Comments: See Twedt et al. (1992) for information on genetic variation in the northern Great Plains. See Twedt et al. (1994) for information on morphological variation in the northern Great Plains. These authors concluded that the population could be divided into two subpopulations based on morphology. However, they acknowledged that there is an overall clinal trend, and they found no genetic differentiation between the proposed subpopulations.

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