Plants and Animals

Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus Yellow-headed blackbird

Key Characteristics

The male Yellow-headed blackbird is unmistakable with its yellow head, neck, and breast, black body plumage, lore, and eye-stripe, and white wing patches visible in flight. Females and immature males have muted plumages with dull black and brown bodies, pale yellow primarily on the breast and throat, but also on the neck and eyestripe. Other female or immature male blackbirds lack yellow on the head. The song is also distinctive and harsh or raspy - "oka wee wee, oka wee wee, oka wee wee" or "kuk - kohkohkoh -- waaaaaaaa".

Status and Rank

US Status: No Status/Not Listed
State Status: SC - Special Concern (rare or uncertain; not legally protected)
Global Rank: G5 - Secure
State Rank: S2 - Imperiled


CountyNumber of OccurrencesYear Last Observed
Bay 3 2019
Delta 1 1995
Saginaw 1 2003
Tuscola 2 2007

Information is summarized from MNFI's database of rare species and community occurrences. Data may not reflect true distribution since much of the state has not been thoroughly surveyed.


Yellow-headed Blackbirds are found in cattail and phragmites stands in permanent wetlands such as marshes, sloughs, marshy lake margins, and sewage lagoons. The species is a colonial breeder.

Natural Community Types

For each species, lists of natural communities were derived from review of the nearly 6,500 element occurrences in the MNFI database, in addition to herbarium label data for some taxa. In most cases, at least one specimen record exists for each listed natural community. For certain taxa, especially poorly collected or extirpated species of prairie and savanna habitats, natural community lists were derived from inferences from collection sites and habitat preferences in immediately adjacent states (particularly Indiana and Illinois). Natural communities are not listed for those species documented only from altered or ruderal habitats in Michigan, especially for taxa that occur in a variety of habitats outside of the state.

Natural communities are not listed in order of frequency of occurrence, but are rather derived from the full set of natural communities, organized by Ecological Group. In many cases, the general habitat descriptions should provide greater clarity and direction to the surveyor. In future versions of the Rare Species Explorer, we hope to incorporate natural community fidelity ranks for each taxon.

Management Recommendations

Besides protecting habitat used by existing populations of Yellow-headed blackbirds management should focus on diverse deepwater emergent marshes surrounded by shallower marshes and grassland areas. They typically nest in tall stands of emergent vegetation over water 50 - 100 cm deep. Large marshes with a 50:50 ratio of open water and emergent vegetation, often termed hemi-marshes, attract the highest densities and diversities of wetland birds, including Yellow-headed blackbirds. While vegetation should be rather dense to provide cover for the nest stem densities that are too high may reduce aquatic insect production and Yellow-headed blackbird encounter rates with prey. Wildlife biologists should manage wetlands, especially those with water level control structures, for the hemi-marsh state. Best management practices, such as filter strips, no-till farming, and conservation tillage, should be encouraged in watersheds containing suitable wetlands to help protect valuable habitats from siltation and chemical pollution.

Active Period

Migration from first week of April to fourth week of April

Migration from third week of August to fourth week of October

Nesting from fourth week of April to fourth week of July

Survey Methods

The best time to survey for Yellow-headed blackbirds is during the breeding season when the males are territorial and conspicuous. A variety of techniques can be used to successfully survey Yellow-headed blackbirds, including transects or point counts traversed by foot, boat, or canoe, in suitable breeding habitat.

Transect, point counts

Survey Period: From first week of April to first week of July

Time of Day: Morning (sunrise)


Survey References

  • Bibby, C.J., N.D. Burgess, and D.A. Hill. 1992. Bird Census Techniques. Academic Press, New York.

Technical References

  • Monfils, M.J. 2004. Special Animal Abstract for Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus (Yellow-headed blackbird). Michigan Natural Features Inventory, Lansing, MI. 4pp.