Status: Common, Native Summer Resident

(Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus )


The yellow-headed blackbird genus and species name, Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus literally means yellow head,
yellow head. Xanthos and cephalus are Latin from the Greek with xanthos meaning yellow and cephalus meaning head. The
yellow-headed blackbird is about the size of a robin, 8 to 11 inches (20-28 cm) in length with a wing span of 13 to 15 inches
(33-39 cm). The males are slightly larger than the females. The head, neck and upper parts of the breast are yellow in the
male. The plumage is black elsewhere, with conspicuous white markings on the wings. Female birds are duller and lighter,
with no white wing markings. 


The yellow-headed blackbird is a common resident in the eastern part of the state during the summer. In the winter it
migrates to the southern part of the United States. Spring arrivals typically start in mid-April and continue through the first
week of May. The earliest migrants arrive in early March. Some yellow-headed blackbirds may move to the western part of
the state for breeding in suitable habitat, but this species does not generally nest in the Black Hills. Fall migration starts in
late September and continues into October. A few birds may attempt to winter in the state as indicated by sightings on
Christmas Bird Counts. 

Natural History

Yellow-headed blackbirds, like red-winged blackbirds, prefer to nest in marsh areas, but unlike red-wings, yellow-heads
nest deeper in the marsh. This leads the yellow-heads to depend more on the area around the marsh for food. Their diet
consists of more than aquatic insects. In fields they eat beetles, weevils, grasshoppers, dragonflies, spiders, ants, and seeds
of panic grass, ragweed, smartweed, and pigweed. Occasionally, yellow-heads will come to bird feeders that are stocked
with millet and sunflower seeds.

During breeding season, males set up territories and attract females through songs and displays. The females build deep,
woven basket-type nests using water-soaked dead grasses. Nest sites are always among plants over standing water, with the
nests sometimes placed only a few inches above water level. In contrast to the red-wings, the male yellow-heads help with
brood care. Eggs are off-white with spots of brown and gray. Usually 3 to 7 eggs are laid in a nest. The incubation period
lasts 12 to 13 days. The young generally leave the nest between 9 and 12 days of age, but are unable to fly until they are
about 21 days old.

Conservation Measures

All migratory song birds are protected by federal law. It is illegal to harm the birds or disturb their nests. However, an
exception to this law has been made for blackbirds. Because large flocks of these birds sometimes disturb seed crops,
farmers have special permission to kill these species if they are disturbing their crops. Non-lethal methods of discouraging
blackbirds from cropland are preferred. Some of these control methods include using loud noise-making machines and
placing scarecrow-type structures in the fields.


Bull, John and John Farrand Jr., 1977, The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds Eastern Region, Alfred
K. Knopf: New York.
Johnsgard, Paul A.,1979, Birds of the Great Plains Breeding Species and Their Distribution, University of Nebraska Press:
Lincoln and London.
SDOU, 1991, The Birds of South Dakota, NSU Press: Aberdeen, SD 57401.
Terres, John K., 1980, The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds, Alfred A. Knopf: New York.

Written by:
John Neff, Pierre, SD 57501. 1997.

llustrated by:
Kathy Colavitti, independent artist, Green Bay, WI.

Reviewed by:
Dan Tallman, Northern State University, Aberdeen, SD 57401.

Publication of the Yellow-headed Blackbird fact sheet was funded by the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks,
Division of Wildlife, Pierre, SD.