Illinois Natural History Survey - University of Illinois

Yellow-headed blackbird
Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus

 

Taxonomy
Occurence in Illinois
Status
Habitat associations
Guilds
Food-habits
Environmental associations
Life history
Management practices
References


TAXONOMY

 

  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Aves
  • Order: Passeriformes
  • Family: Emberizidae
  • Genus: Xanthocephalus
  • Species: Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus
  • Authority: Bonaparte

Comments on taxonomy:
New name for Icterus icterocephalus (Bonaparte).

 


OCCURENCE IN ILLINOIS

Uncommon summer resident nesting in northeastern Illinois. The highest spring count was 35 in Cook Co. in 1983.

 


STATUS

Items in bold indicate applicable categories
Forest Service Categories: S = recommended for regional sensitive status, F = forest listed species, M = management indicator species

Federal Status:

Endangered Threatened Proposed for listing
Candidate for proposal Recovery plan approved Recovery plan received (USFWS)
Recovery plan in preparation Under notice of review Delisted
Migratory EPA indicator Forest Serv.- Shawnee species

State Status:

Endangered Threatened Proposed

Other:

Game Furbearer Nongame protected
Sportfish Commercial Pest None of the above

Comments on status:
Summer resident in the north. Rare migrant in rest of state.

 


HABITAT ASSOCIATIONS

Items in bold indicate applicable categories

General habitat:

Unknown Terrestrial Aquatic Riparian

USFS timber inventory forest size class:

Unknown Unstocked Seedling Sapling
Seedling/sapling Pole Mature Over mature

Land use and land cover:

Unknown   Urban Residential
Commercial
Industrial
Transportation, communication
Complex industrial/commercial
Mixed
Other
Agricultural Crop, pasture
Orchards, groves, nurseries
Feedlot
Other
Rangeland Herbaceous
Shrub and brush
Mixed
Forestland Deciduous
Evergreen
Mixed
Water Stream
Lake
Reservoir

Bay
Wetland Forest
Non-forest
Barren Salt flat
Beach
Sand
Rock
Mine
Transit
Mix

 


Forest cover types: No records.

Associated tree species: No records.

National wetland inventory classifications:

SystemSubsystemClassSubclassWater regime modifiersWater chemistry
Lacustrine Littoral Emergent vegetation Persistent Unknown/unspecified Unknown/unspecified
Lacustrine Littoral Emergent vegetation Nonpersistent Unknown/unspecified Unknown/unspecified
Palustrine   Emergent vegetation Persistent Unknown/unspecified Unknown/unspecified
Palustrine   Emergent vegetation Nonpersistent Unknown/unspecified Unknown/unspecified
Riverine Lower perennial Emergent vegetation Persistent Unknown/unspecified Unknown/unspecified
Riverine Lower perennial Emergent vegetation Nonpersistent Unknown/unspecified Unknown/unspecified

Comments on species-habitat associations:
Yellow-headed blackbirds inhabit marshes, sloughs, and marshy borders of lakes, ponds or streams. Permanent water appears essential. This species nests in thick stands of emergent vegetation invariably over water *22*, feeding in aquatic vegetation and also in upland fields and prairies.

Important plant and animal association: The important plants are tall thick stands of bulrush, reeds, scirpus or phragmites and cattails.

High value habitats

HabitatStructural stageSeason
Lakes Special habitat Summer/fall
Lakes Special habitat Fall
Cropland and pasture Not applicable
(HVAL-HAB cover)
Summer/fall
Cropland and pasture Not applicable
(HVAL-HAB cover)
Fall
Nonforested wetland Special habitat Summer/fall
Nonforested wetland Special habitat Fall
Wetland Special habitat Summer/fall
Wetland Special habitat Fall
Marsh Special habitat Summer/fall
Marsh Special habitat Fall
Lakes and ponds Special habitat Summer/fall
Lakes and ponds Special habitat Fall
Streams Special habitat Summer/fall
Streams Special habitat Fall
Agricultural field Not applicable
(HVAL-HAB cover)
Summer/fall
Agricultural field Not applicable
(HVAL-HAB cover)
Fall
Marsh restoration Special habitat Summer/fall
Marsh restoration Special habitat Fall

Species-habitat interrelations: The yellow-headed blackbird frequents marshes, sloughs and marshy borders of lakes, ponds or rivers. This species invariably nests in thick emergent vegetation over standing water. Apparently, seldom use shaded marshes with heavily wooded shores *15*. Permanent water appears essential and indicates through water presence and nutrients an availability of insect food. The yellow-headed blackbird is known to forage in marshes, meadows, barnyards and cultivated fields.

 


GUILDS

Feed-guilding:

HabitatStructural stageSeasonFeed-guilds
Wetland Special habitat Fall Water surface- arthropods
Water surface- invertebrates other than zooplankton or arthropods
Terrestrial surface- arthropods
Terrestrial surface- invertebrates other than arthropods
Wetland Special habitat Summer/fall Water surface- arthropods
Water surface- invertebrates other than zooplankton or arthropods
Terrestrial surface- arthropods
Terrestrial surface- invertebrates other than arthropods
Marsh Special habitat Fall Water surface- arthropods
Water surface- invertebrates other than zooplankton or arthropods
Terrestrial surface- arthropods
Terrestrial surface- invertebrates other than arthropods
Marsh Special habitat Summer/fall Water surface- arthropods
Water surface- invertebrates other than zooplankton or arthropods
Terrestrial surface- arthropods
Terrestrial surface- invertebrates other than arthropods
Lakes and ponds Not applicable
(HVAL-HAB cover)
Fall Water surface- arthropods
Water surface- invertebrates other than zooplankton or arthropods
Terrestrial surface- arthropods
Terrestrial surface- invertebrates other than arthropods
Lakes and ponds Not applicable
(HVAL-HAB cover)
Spring/summer Water surface- arthropods
Water surface- invertebrates other than zooplankton or arthropods
Terrestrial surface- arthropods
Terrestrial surface- invertebrates other than arthropods
Agricultural field Not applicable
(HVAL-HAB cover)
Fall Terrestrial surface- arthropods
Terrestrial surface- invertebrates other than arthropods
Terrestrial surface-flowers and fruits of grass/grasslike vegetation
Agricultural field Not applicable
(HVAL-HAB cover)
Summer/fall Terrestrial surface- arthropods
Terrestrial surface- invertebrates other than arthropods
Terrestrial surface-flowers and fruits of grass/grasslike vegetation

Comments on feed-guilding:
The yellow headed blackbird feeds on a variety of arthropods, primarily dipterans, odonates, and lepidopterans. They also forage upland during low insect abundance. Information from CA and WA states. *16,14,15,4,6,12*.

Breed-guilding:

HabitatStructural stageSeasonBreed-Guilds
Wetland Special habitat Summer/fall River/lake/marsh, vascular plants- emergent, nonwoody

Comments on breed-guilding:
Yellow-headed blackbird nests only in emergent vegetation over permanent standing water (6"-3' deep). This species exhibits a polygynous mating system.

 


FOOD-HABITS

Trophic level is OMNIVORE

Food itemLife stage/plant part
Poaceae (grass): corn Fruit/seeds
Poaceae (grass): oats Fruit/seeds
Poaceae (grass): wild oat grass Fruit/seeds
Poaceae (grass): rice Fruit/seeds
Poaceae (grass): wheat Fruit/seeds
Cyperaceae (bulrushes, sedges) Fruit/seeds
Mollusca: Gastropoda (snails) Unknown
Arachnida (spiders, ticks, scorpions, daddy longlegs) Unknown
Ephemeroptera (mayflies) Unknown
Odonata (dragonflies, damselflies) Adult
Orthoptera (grasshoppers, crickets, cockroaches) Adult
Hemiptera Unknown
Homoptera (cicadas, aphids) Unknown
Coleoptera (beetles) Larva
Coleoptera (beetles) Adult
Tricoptera (caddisflies) Unknown
Lepidoptera (butterfiles, moths) Unknown
Diptera (flies, midges, mosquitoes) Unknown
Hymenoptera (ants, wasps, bees) Unknown
Important:
Arachnida (spiders, ticks, scorpions, daddy longlegs) Unknown
Ephemeroptera (mayflies) Unknown
Odonata (dragonflies, damselflies) Adult
Orthoptera (grasshoppers, crickets, cockroaches) Adult
Homoptera (cicadas, aphids) Unknown
Coleoptera (beetles) Larva
Coleoptera (beetles) Adult
Diptera (flies, midges, mosquitoes) Unknown
Juvenile:
Mollusca: Gastropoda (snails) Unknown
Arachnida (spiders, ticks, scorpions, daddy longlegs) Unknown
Ephemeroptera (mayflies) Unknown
Odonata (dragonflies, damselflies) Adult
Orthoptera (grasshoppers, crickets, cockroaches) Adult
Hemiptera Unknown
Homoptera (cicadas, aphids) Unknown
Coleoptera (beetles) Larva
Coleoptera (beetles) Adult
Tricoptera (caddisflies) Unknown
Lepidoptera (butterfiles, moths) Unknown
Diptera (flies, midges, mosquitoes) Unknown
Adult:
Poaceae (grass): corn Fruit/seeds
Poaceae (grass): oats Fruit/seeds
Poaceae (grass): wild oat grass Fruit/seeds
Poaceae (grass): rice Fruit/seeds
Poaceae (grass): wheat Fruit/seeds
Cyperaceae (bulrushes, sedges) Fruit/seeds
Mollusca: Gastropoda (snails) Unknown
Arachnida (spiders, ticks, scorpions, daddy longlegs) Unknown
Ephemeroptera (mayflies) Unknown
Odonata (dragonflies, damselflies) Adult
Orthoptera (grasshoppers, crickets, cockroaches) Adult
Hemiptera Unknown
Homoptera (cicadas, aphids) Unknown
Coleoptera (beetles) Larva
Coleoptera (beetles) Adult
Tricoptera (caddisflies) Unknown
Lepidoptera (butterfiles, moths) Unknown
Diptera (flies, midges, mosquitoes) Unknown
Hymenoptera (ants, wasps, bees) Unknown

Comments on food habits: 
General: Yellow-headed blackbirds primarily feed on insects which are most easily obtained and adundant. The species also forages upland on s seeds and grains *04,06,12,14*.
Juvenile: The nestling diet reflects the females opportunistic forging behavior *04,06,12,13,14,18*. Juveniles adopt adult food habits upon fledging.
Adult: The yellow-headed blackbird feeds on a variety of arthropods, primarily odonates, dipterans, and lepidopterans. They also forage upland during low insect abundance on seeds and grains *4,6,12,14,18*.


ENVIRONMENTAL ASSOCIATIONS

General:

  • Nutrient (P and N): see comments
  • Aquatic habitat: shallows with emergent vegetation (littoral zone)
  • Water level: permanent
  • Water depth preference: 1-5 ft.
  • Aquatic habitats: brackish water marsh
  • Aquatic habitats: freshwater marsh
  • Aquatic habitats: sloughs, bayous
  • Aquatic habitats: marsh
  • Unknown

Limiting:

  • Nutrient (P and N): see comments Aquatic habitat: shallows with emergent vegetation (littoral zone) Water level: permanent Water depth preference: 1-5 ft. Aquatic habitats: brackish water marsh Aquatic habitats: freshwater marsh Aquatic habitats: marsh

Egg

  • Unknown

Feeding juvenile:

  • Nutrient (P and N): see comments
  • Water level: permanent
  • Aquatic habitats: brackish water marsh
  • Aquatic habitats: freshwater marsh
  • Aquatic habitats: sloughs, bayous
  • Aquatic habitats: marsh

Resting juvenile:

  • Aquatic habitat: shallows with emergent vegetation (littoral zone)
  • Aquatic habitats: brackish water marsh
  • Aquatic habitats: freshwater marsh
  • Aquatic habitats: sloughs, bayous
  • Aquatic habitats: marsh

Feeding adult:

  • Nutrient (P and N): see comments
  • Water level: permanent
  • Aquatic habitats: brackish water marsh
  • Aquatic habitats: freshwater marsh
  • Aquatic habitats: sloughs, bayous
  • Aquatic habitats: marsh

Resting adult:

  • Aquatic habitats: freshwater marsh
  • Aquatic habitats: sloughs, bayous
  • Aquatic habitats: marsh

Breeding adult:

  • Aquatic habitat: shallows with emergent vegetation (littoral zone)
  • Water depth preference: 1-5 ft.
  • Aquatic habitats: brackish water marsh
  • Aquatic habitats: freshwater marsh
  • Aquatic habitats: sloughs, bayous
  • Aquatic habitats: marsh

Comments on environmental associations:
General: High nutrient level is positively correlated with submerged vegetation which is required for large populations of aquatic insects. Water permanence is also positively correlated with submerged vegetation. Also see high-valus habitats.
Feeding juvenile: Are fed in the nest and assume feed among aquatic vegetation upon fledging.
Resting juvenile: Juveniles hop around in emergent vegetation before they learn to fly.
Feeding adult: Adults forage in marshes, meadows, cultivated fields and other upland fields.
Resting adult: Assume adults rest in marsh vegetation and possibly with other blackbirds outside breeding season.
Breeding adult: Adults breed invariably in thick aquatic vegetation over water, usual- ly in marshes, sloughs or marshy borders of lakes or rivers.


LIFE HISTORY

Origin: The yellow-headed blackbird is native to Illinois and was once common in the Chicago region marshes. It may have been common along the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers (1). It is a rare summer resident from mid-April to early October (2).

Physical description: The yellow-headed blackbird is a robin sized blackbird with a yellow head and white patches on wings. Females are smaller and browner with most of the yellow confined to the throat and chest. The female's breast is streaked with white. Crawford and holman did a study on a method for aging yellow-headed blackbirds in the field.

Reproduction: The yellow-headed blackbird is a polygamous species breeding in northeast Illinois (2). The males arrive at the marsh nesting area and establish territories before the females arrive (17). When the females arrive one to five females build a nest within a male's territory *15*. Females are protective of their nesting area but don't help the male defend his territory. The female lays 2-6 eggs *07*. The eggs are incubated (by the female) for 12-13 days, with incubation beginning with the second or third egg *15*. Yearling females fledge significantly fewer young than older females *08*. Though Fautin (1941) states the minimum breeding age for both sexes is 2 years *18*.

Behavior: The yellow-headed blackbird is territorial during the breeding season *06*. The size of the male's territory is indirectly proportional to the quality of the marsh habitat. There is a positive relationship between the surface area of marsh and territory size. And there is a positive correlation between the surface area of the marsh and the number of fledglings per adult *11*. Royall, et al. (1971) found yellow-headed blackbirds migrate from the Dakotas in late August or early September as far south as south central Mexico *19*. The yellow-headed blackbirds flock with other blackbirds during the non-breeding periods, feeding on grain and insects *06*. During the breeding season the female forages close to the nest *18*. The males within his territory or upland in a flock *18*. Almost all parental care is done by the female. The male helps to feed the young in the first nest to hatch. For the first two or three days after hatching she broods them some during the day and feeds them small insects *06*. The first day the chick's weight gain averages 60%. After the third day the female starts bringing bigger insects such as grasshoppers, damselflies and dragonflies. After the young are 4 or 5 days old the female stays at the nest only long enough to deliver food and inspect for water *18*. At nine days old the chicks weight gain has decreased to 5% per day and it has achieved about 60% of its adult weight *18*. At 10-14 days old the young can not fly but they leave the nest never to return. They hop around in the dense vegetation near the water surface and remain there until they learn to fly at about three weeks old *18*. After the breeding season the birds leave the nesting area and flock in dense bulrush and cattail growths. They remain there all day, coming out only to feed in the morning and evening. Often the flocks are segregated with males in one and females and juveniles in another *18*. In August the flocks leave the marsh, returning only at night to roost *18*.

Limiting factors: Fautin (1940) estimated a minimum marsh size of 0.15 ha (0.38 acres) made up of emergent vegetation over standing water *17*. Schroeder (1982) suggests water nutrients and permenance of water are the controlling factors which determine the quality of aquatic insects for food *04*.

Population parameters:Colonies of nesting yellow-headed blackbirds seem to be declining in northern Illinois *02*. Searcy (1979) estimated the survival rate of adult males at 51% from return rates *10*. Bray suggests a survival rate of 58.5% For adult males and 75.3% For adult females *09*. Bray estimated the mean life span is 1.9 years after banding (which is on bird's first Jan. 1) *09*. Lederer found the sex ratio to be constant at 2.95 females to 3.10 males *11*.


MANAGEMENT PRACTICES

Beneficial:

  • Maintaining undisturbed/undeveloped areas
  • Maintaining early stage of ecological succession
  • Maintaining natural areas and nature preserves
  • Developing/maintaining edge (ecotones)
  • Maintaining unique or special habitat features (wetlands, snags, caves, cliffs, talises, etc.
  • Preserving endangered species habitat
  • Preserving sensitive species habitat
  • Performing special survey prior to prescription
  • Performing field survey prior to prescription
  • Seasonal restriction of human use of habitats
  • Controlling pollution
  • Controlling pollution in aquatic habitats
  • Controlling water levels
  • Maintaining streams
  • Developing/maintaining lakes and ponds
  • Developing/maintaining wetlands
  • Creating/maintaining wetlands from non-wetlands
  • Protecting existing wetlands
  • Burning of wetlands to maintain successional stages
  • Restoration of wetlands (return flooded or drained areas to previous wetland conditions)
  • Developing/maintaining riparian habitat

Adverse:

  • Controlling land use and human activities
  • Recreational development
  • Channelization
  • Dredging
  • Controlling aquatic plants
  • Draining ponds/lakes
  • Draining wetlands
  • Strip mining

Comments on management practices:
Protection and maintainence of wetland areas should be of primary concern in order to assure the continuation of the yellow-headed blackbirds as a breeder in Illinois. The yellow-headed blackbird is- protected by the Illinois Endangered Species Act 1971*01*, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act 1918 *23* and the Illinois Wildlife Code 1971 *24*.

 


REFERENCES

0. STAKE, S.J. 1984. IL. NAT. HIST. SURV. 609 E. PEABODY DR., CHAMPAIGN, IL. 61820. (217) 333-6846.

1. BOWLES, MARTIN L. JANUARY, 1981. ENDANGERED AND THREATENED VERTEBRATE ANIMALS AND VASCULAR PLANTS OF ILLINOIS: STATUS AND DISTRIBUTION. DEPARTMENT OF CONSERVATION. 212 PP.

2. BOHLEN, H. DAVID, 1978. AN ANNOTATED CHECKLIST OF THE BIRDS OF ILLINOIS. ILLINOIS STATE MUSEUM POPULAR SCIENCE SERIES, VOL. IX. 156 PP.

3. AMERICAN ORNITHOLOGISTS' UNION, 1957 CHECK-LIST OF NORTH AMERICAN BIRDS. AMERICAN ORNITHOLOGISTS' UNION. THE LORD BALTIMORE PRESS, INC. BALTIMORE, MARYLAND. III-IX PLUS 691 PP.

4. SCHROEDER, RICHARD L. 1982. HABITAT SUITABILITY INDEX MODELS: YELLOW- HEADED BLACKBIRD. U.S. DEPT. INT., FISH WILDL. SERV. FWS/OBS982/10.26. 12 PP.

5. KLEEN, VERNON M. 1983. REPORT AND RESULTS '83 STATEWIDE SPRING BIRD COUNT. ILLINOIS AUDUBON BULLETIN 206/FALL 1983. P. 11-20 OR 206:11-20.

6. BENT, ARTHUR C. 1957. CHECK-LIST OF NORTH AMERICAN BIRDS. 5TH ED. LORD BALTIMORE PRESS, BALTIMORE, MARYLAND. XII + 591 PP.

7. ELLARSON, R.S. 1950. THE YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRD IN WISCONSIN. PASSENGER PIGEON 12(1):99-109.

8. CRAWFORD, RICHARD D. AND WILLIAM L. HOHMAN. 1978. A METHOD FOR AGING FEMALE YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRDS. BIRD-BANDING 49(3):201-207.

9. BRAY, OLIN E., ANN M. GAMMELL, AND DAVID R. ANDERSON. 1979. SURVIVAL OF YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRDS BANDED IN NORTH DAKOTA. BIRD-BANDING 50 (3):252-255.

10. SEARCY, WILLIAM A. 1979. SIZE AND MORTALITY IN MALE YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRDS. CONDOR 81:304-305.

11. LEDERER, R.J. 1978. FLUCTUATION OF A MARSH HABITAT AND THE REPRODUCTIVE STRATEGY OF THE YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRD. GREAT BASIN NATURALIST 38(1):85-89.

12. CRASE, F.T. AND R.W. DEHAVEN. 1978. FOOD SELECTION BY FIVE SYMPATRIC CALIFORNIA BLACKBIRD SPECIES. CALIF. FISH AND GAME 64(4):255-267.

13. ORIANS, G.H., AND H.S. HORN. 1969. OVERLAP IN FOODS AND FORAGING OF FOUR SPECIES OF BLACKBIRDS IN THE POTHOLES OF CENTRAL WASHINGTON. ECOLOGY 50(5):930-938.

14. VOIGHTS, D.K. 1973. FOOD NICHE OVERLAP OF TWO MARSH ICTERIDS. CONDOR 75:392-399.

15. WILSON, M.F. 1966. BREEDING ECOLOGY OF THE YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRD. ECOL. MONOGR. 36:51-77.

16. ORIANS, G.H. 1980. SOME ADAPTATIONS OF MARSH NESTING BIRDS. POPULATION BIOL. MONOGR. 14. 295 PP.

17. FAUTIN, R.W. 1940. THE ESTABLISHMENT AND MAINTENANCE OF TERRITORIES BY THE YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRD IN UTAH. THE GREAT BASIN NATURALSIT 1(2):75-91.

18. FAUTIN, R.W. 1941. DEVELOPMENT OF NESTLING YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRDS. AUK 58:215-232.

19. ROYALL, W.C. JR., J.W. DE GRAZIO, J.L. GUARINA AND A GAMMELL. 1971. MIGRATION OF BANDED YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRDS. THE CONDOR 73:100-106.

20. PETERSON, R.T. 1980. A FIELD GUIDE TO THE BIRDS EAST OF THE ROCKIES. HOUGHTON MIFFLIN CO., BOSTON. 384 PP.

21. FAUTIN, R.W. 1941. INCUBATION STUDIES OF THE YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRD. THE WILSON BULLETIN 53(2):107-122.

22. HARRISON, H. 1975. A FIELD GUIDE TO BIRDS' NESTS. HOUGHTON MIFFLIN CO. BOSTON. 257 P.

23. U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE. 1983. CODE OF FEDERAL REGULATIONS. TITLE 50, WILDLIFE AND FISHERIES, CHAPTER 1. PP 11-18. 50 CFR 10.13 LIST OF MIGRATORY BIDS. SPECIAL PUBL. FEDERAL REGISTER. GENERAL SER- VICES ADMIN. OCTOBER 1.

24. ILLINOIS DEPARTMENT OF CONSERVATION. 1980. CONSERVATION LAWS. CH.61. WILDLIFE. ART. II. PAR.2.2. REPRINTED FROM ILLINOIS REVISED STATUTES, 1979. WEST PUBL. CO., ST. PAUL, MN. 120 P.

 


 

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