You couldn’t get a more suitable name for a male “Yellow-headed blackbird” – they are, quite simply, black birds with yellow heads. But how about the females? Do female yellow-headed blackbirds (Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus) share the same yellow head and black-bodied plumage as males of the species? Our guide will help you become an expert in identifying female yellow-headed blackbirds.
Female yellow-headed blackbirds are medium-sized songbirds, with dull black-brown bodies and pale yellow feathers on their breast, neck, and throat. They do not share the striking saffron yellow and glossy black coloring of males of the species.
Female yellow-headed blackbirds are smaller and lighter than males, but it’s not just in appearance that these sociable wetland birds can be told apart. There are also key differences between female and male yellow-headed blackbirds in mating, nesting, and migratory behavior.
To learn more about these differences, you’ll find our complete guide to female yellow-headed blackbirds below.
Yellow-headed Blackbird females are brown, instead of the black coloring of the male
Male and female yellow-headed blackbirds are not at all alike, making distinction between the sexes fairly straightforward.
As the species name suggests, males are black with a bold yellow head. White wing patches are visible in flight. Females, in contrast, are a dull brown instead of the lustrous black, and their yellow coloring is a lot paler and more washed out than the shades seen on males.
Female Yellow-headed Blackbird
Male Yellow-headed Blackbird
Female yellow-headed blackbirds have brownish-gray bodies, with a patch of pale yellow feathers on their throat and upper breast. Their faces are marked with a pale yellow stripe above the eye, and yellow markings around the bill, which is dull black.
Like males, females have dark black legs and olive-brown irises.
Close up of a female Yellow-headed Blackbird with insects in beak
Female yellow-headed blackbirds are smaller in all aspects than males, including body length, mass and even bill size.
A female yellow-headed blackbird is around 50 mm (2 in) shorter in body length than a male, measuring an average 215 mm (8.5 in) compared to 265 mm (10.4 in) for males.
Females lose weight during the breeding season but recover once their young have left the nest. A breeding female weighs on average 51g (1.8 oz), compared to 60g (2.1 oz) at other times of the year. Males weigh up to 100g (3.5 oz).
Measurements vary depending on season, with a female’s bill recorded to decrease in size from 19 mm (0.74 in) in June to 18.5 mm (0.72 in) in August, compared to corresponding measurements of 22.2 mm (0.87 in) and 21.6 mm (0.89 in) in male birds.
Yellow-headed Blackbird (female) perched on a wire
Breeding habits of yellow-headed blackbirds are particularly interesting, with a male establishing a territory, and assembling his own ‘harem’ of up to eight females. These females then nest in his territory.
Defense of this territory from other males is aggressively undertaken by the male, while females defend the area immediately around their own nest.
While the male is otherwise occupied with other female mates, it is not uncommon for the female yellow-headed blackbird to mate with a male from a neighboring territory.
The vocal array of female yellow-headed blackbirds is less varied than that of males. Females only have one song and four distinct calls. Males have a wider repertoire, with two different songs and six calls.
Sounds made by females are higher in pitch than those of males.
The black plumage on males makes it easy to tell the sexes apart - pictured, singing male Yellow-headed Blackbird
Female yellow-headed blackbirds select a suitable nesting spot on the male’s territory, and build their nests alone. Males remain nearby and will chase off any intruders.
Incubation and initial brooding is by females alone, who leave the nest to forage for food, rather than being fed on the nest by their mate.
Once young yellow-headed blackbirds hatch, they continue to be brooded and fed solely by females until they reach 4 days of age. After this, males may or may not assist with feeding the young. Male involvement depends on whether the female is their primary mate or it’s a secondary pairing.
Females continue to feed young after fledging, and males will participate too, unless the nest is off his territory, in which case only the female feeds them.
Diet differs between male and female yellow-headed blackbirds, according to the time of year. Research shows that females forage for more insects and small grains in the spring, compared to seed and grain preferred by males.
Later in the year, the female’s switches to focus more on weeds, while males look for sunflower seeds and small grains.
Female Yellow-headed Blackbird in flight
From a distance, female red-winged blackbirds may be confused with female yellow-headed blackbirds, but a closer look should enable you to tell the difference.
Both birds are roughly the same size and have the same shaped bill, and are the same shade of dull brown. However, female red-winged blackbirds’ bodies are distinctively marked with streaks of lighter color.
Females are chiefly responsible for raising young alone, from nest site selection right through to the fledgling stage. Male yellow-headed blackbirds do not incubate eggs, and may not always participate in the feeding of young.
They breed with several females and only routinely are involved with feeding their offspring at the primary nest – and even then, their assistance does not usually start until around four days after hatching.
Territorial males guard nest sites from predators, so lone female yellow-headed blackbirds may be exposed to a higher threat of disturbance if her mate was not around.
Close up of a perched female Yellow-headed Blackbird
Female yellow-headed blackbirds aren’t really black, but instead are a dull shade of dark grayish-brown. Their head, throat and upper breast have pale yellow markings, which are not as vibrant as the golden color seen in males.
Female yellow-headed blackbirds can make four different calls, including a ‘check’ contact call and a ‘scream’ alarm call to warn off predators.
A female yellow-headed blackbird has just one vocalization that is the equivalent of the male’s song – a high-pitched, rapid chattering. Although not particularly tuneful, it is heard during nest defense and when the female leaves the nest during incubation.
Several female yellow-headed blackbirds nest in the same territory, defined by the male with which they mated. Males are polygamous, mating with up to eight females in the same season.
Females will aggressively defend the area immediately surrounding their own nest, but play no role in protecting the wider territory.
Brighten up your inbox with our exclusive newsletter, enjoyed by thousands of people from around the world.