Yellow-headed Blackbird with Brown-headed Cowbirds and a Common Grackle

To see more profiles of the Birds of Ocracoke, click here

Text and photos by Peter Vankevich

Fall migration is a time when unusual birds appear in unexpected locations. Such was the case on Ocracoke when a Yellow-headed Blackbird (Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus) showed up on Ocracoke on Oct. 17.

That afternoon, a large, noisy, mixed-flock of Common and Boat-tailed Grackles, Brown-headed Cowbirds and Mourning and Eurasian Collared Doves arrived in this reporter’s yard in Widgeon Woods, near the lighthouse, to feed on bird seed on the ground. Their appearance was not unusual, but then a different species appeared in a wax myrtle tree.

After perching for several minutes surveying the scene, the mystery bird swooped down and joined the others and began ravenously eating the seed. Unlike some birds whose plumage in the fall can make them a challenge to identify, this one was easy–a Yellow-headed Blackbird. This bird is well-named, and no other bird in North America looks similar.

The adult male in breeding plumage has a bright yellow head and breast, a black eye line and body and upper white wing patches that are noticeable in flight. Females and first-year males are less colorful as was this one, probably a first-year male.

Like the smaller Red winged Blackbird, these are water birds. They nest in fresh water marshes, prairie pot holes and mountain meadows of central and western North America. Their eastern most breeding range is Minnesota, Wisconsin, northwestern Indiana and northern Illinois.

They winter primarily in the southwest and Mexico.

In the spring, when the male arrives onto its breeding grounds, it will stake out a territory, driving off Red-wing Blackbirds, and attempt to attract several females which arrive a week or two  later. The males are polygynous and will include between one and six females within a harem.

The females build nests on cattails, bulrushes and reeds over deeper water than red-wings and are primarily responsible for feeding the young.

During breeding season, they feed on and provide aquatic insects to their nestlings and they forage on cultivated grains and weed seeds during the post-breeding season.

The Yellow-headed Blackbird is strongly aggressive toward Marsh Wrens, probably because of the egg-destroying habits of these much smaller birds.

The male’s song is a short series of musical notes followed by a buzzy screech.

The term “rare bird” can be used two ways. It can mean a bird whose population is very small and perhaps in danger of extinction. It can also be used for species whose numbers are plentiful, but for an individual which strays beyond its distribution range into an area where they are not normally seen.

Recently, a Yellow-breasted Bunting showed up at a bird feeder on the southeast coast of Labrador. This is a Eurasian species, typically found in Russia and thousands of miles outside its range. It is also an endangered species.

In North Carolina, major storms can be responsible for providing rare birds. At other times, young birds which do not have the migration routes down, may head off in another direction ending up in areas such as the Outer Banks as this bird did.

So, Yellow-headed Blackbirds are considered rare in North Carolina and a delightful find when they show up. The one that appeared on Ocracoke was observed for only two days.

Best Time to see: Few sightings on Outer Banks late summer and fall

Where: Only one known sighting on Ocracoke, in village near lighthouse


(audio provided courtesy of OhioLINK Digital Resource Commons)

Click here for the Birds of the Outer Banks Checklist

Yellow-headed Blackbird, note small white line in wing indicating a probable first year male


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