Illinois Natural History Survey - University of Illinois

Species Spotlight: Yellowheaded Blackbird 

Susan Post, Center for Economic Entomology

The yellow-headed blackbird is a robin-sized bird, larger than its cousin the red-winged blackbird. Its Latin name, Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus, literally means yellow head and refers to the male whose head, neck, and upper breast are bright yellow. Its body is black with white wing patches. The female is dark brown with a yellow patch on her chest. Yellow-headed blackbirds are found in marshes with adjacent open lands, and once the cattails and bulrushes grow tall, the bird is often heard before seen. Its call is unlike its cousin's melodic "skree," but instead has been described as a "rusty hinge," "a guttural croak," or more poetically as "the wail of despairing agony which would do credit to a dying catamount."

Yellowheaded blackbird, Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus.

The yellow-headed blackbird is basically a western species. Its breeding range extends from central Washington to southern California and as far east as Illinois. It once was a fairly common nester in the marshy regions of Chicago, but now is only occasionally found in Lake, Cook, McHenry, Rock Island, and Cass counties.

Yellow-headed blackbirds arrive on their breeding grounds from late March to early May. The birds nest in colonies with each male vigorously defending its "turf." Territories are established in permanent marshes and sloughs that have water 2-4 feet deep and thick vegetation. The deep water deters skunks and raccoons while the thick vegetation and a communal defense are good protection against hawks and crows. If the water levels drop too far during the nesting period, the birds will abandon the nest. The female builds a nest by weaving soggy blades of dead grass that she attaches to cattail stems. When the woven grasses dry, they are drawn together to form a tight structure. The nest takes 2-4 days to construct and the finished product is a basket 5-6 inches in diameter and 2-3 inches above the water.

The female now begins to lay eggs--one whitish egg with brown flecks per day. She usually lays 3-5 eggs and is in charge of incubating them. Once they hatch, the young are fed aquatic insects that contain the protein necessary for swift growth. After 9-12 days the young leave the nest and by three weeks they are making short flights.

Perhaps the best place to view these yellow-headed blackbirds is Willow Flats Pull Off in Grand Teton National Park. Here bold males and juveniles will pick the insects out of your radiator while you watch! If a trip out West isn't in your future, Moraine Hills State Park in McHenry County offers a good viewing opportunity. Take advantage of the Fox River hiking trail which leads to an observation platform over Black Tern Marsh. Scan the marsh for a glimpse of a yellow-headed blackbird. If you forget your binoculars, don't despair; for its call, of which raucous is too polite a descriptor, will surely give it away.

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