Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus

Status:  Common, locally abundant, regular spring and fall migrant statewide. Common breeder north-central and west, locally fairly common east and south. Rare casual winter visitor statewide.

Documentation:  Specimen: UNSM ZM6964, 18 May 1901 Nebraska City, Otoe Co.

Taxonomy:  No subspecies are recognized (Pyle 1997).

Spring:  Feb 14,15,16 <<<>>> summer

Earliest arrivals are usually single males, which sometimes appear by mid-Feb with Red-winged Blackbird flocks.  One was early on territory at Hyannis, Grant Co 8 Mar 2013.  The species is generally rare until mid-Mar, but by mid-late Apr numbers increase markedly and the species is usually observed in single-species flocks. Peak numbers occur in mid-Apr.  Late flocks are sometimes seen; 1000 were in the eastern Rainwater Basin 4 May 1997, and 200 immatures were in a flock 25 May 1997 near Funk WPA, Phelps Co.

  • High counts:  10,000 at Funk WPA 19 Apr 1998, 2000 at Clear Creek WMA, Garden Co 22 Apr 1995 and “several thousand” in the eastern Rainwater Basin 20 Apr 2001.

Summer: Breeds in deeper marshes with emergent vegetation such as cattails (Typha spp.) or bulrush (Scirpus sp.) and thus its breeding distribution matches the distribution of this habitat type in the state (Mollhoff 2016).  Highest densities occur in the Sandhills (Sauer et al 2017); 3000 were at Crescent Lake NWR, Garden Co 30 Aug 1998.  Lower breeding numbers occur elsewhere in Nebraska, although from year to year numbers are variable and the species may be absent altogether depending on water conditions (Blake and Ducey 1991; Jorgensen 2012).  The species can also rapidly colonize formerly dry sites, such as those in the Rainwater Basin, following heavy rains that fill wetlands (Jorgensen 2016).

It occupies deeper areas of the marshes and actively excludes Red-winged Blackbirds from those areas, but itself is excluded from shallower areas by Great-tailed Grackles.

  • Breeding phenology:
    Eggs 20 May-30 Jun
    Nestlings: 2-10 Jun
    Fledglings: 19 Jun- 12 Jul

Mollhoff (2004) noted nesting underway almost synchronously across the state in 2002.

Fall:  summer <<<>>> Nov 3, 5, 8 (north and west) summer <<<>>> Dec 30, Jan 2, 4 (south and east)

Large flocks of molting birds occur at favored localities during Jul-early Aug, such as at Lake Ogallala, Keith Co 1989 and 1990 (Brown et al 2012). Most fall migrants leave the state by late Oct, with expected last dates in early Nov. Later dates in the north and west are 12 Nov 2000 Scotts Bluff Co, 14 Nov 2018 Holt Co, 22 Nov 2006 Knox Co, 23 Nov 1999 four in Scotts Bluff Co, and 24 Nov 2007 Rock Co.

Rosche (1994) noted that a major fall staging area is the marshes at the west end of Lake McConaughy, where 2000-3000 were present 10 Sep 1988.

There are several later dates, including CBC data, that indicate that a few fall migrants may linger as late as early Jan (see Winter). As many as eight were reported on the Scottsbluff CBC 14 Dec 2003 and on the DeSoto NWR, Washington Co, six were reported 22 Dec 1979 and five on 20 Dec 1981. At least one was with a large blackbird flock at Ogallala, Keith Co 30 Dec 2018.

  • High counts:  2000-3000 at Lake McConaughy 10 Sep 1988 and 1500 there 12 and 13 Sep 2013.

Winter: The only documented records of overwintering include a single at a feeder at Crescent Lake NWR 9 Dec-21 Feb 1980-81 (Williams 1981), one at Ogallala, Keith Co 1993-94 (Rosche 1994), two males and a female at a feedlot east of Gering, Scotts Bluff Co 2000-2001, and one that survived at a Platte Co feeder with Red-winged Blackbirds 2012-2013 (a second bird was predated by a Cooper’s Hawk).

There are a few additional midwinter reports: 13 Jan 2018 male with Red-winged Blackbirds at Jack Sinn WMA, Lancaster Co, 18 Jan 2001 adult male Knox Co, 27 Jan 2019 two in Hall Co, 8 Feb 1984 Sarpy Co (Williams 1985), 9 Feb 1976 Douglas-Sarpy Cos (Williams 1976), and 9 Feb 1999 Lincoln, Lancaster Co.


BBS: Breeding Bird Survey
CBC: Christmas Bird Count
NWR: National Wildlife Refuge
UNSM: University of Nebraska State Museum
WMA: Wildlife Management Area (State)
WPA: Waterfowl Production Area (Federal)

Literature Cited

Blake, L., and J. E. Ducey. 1991. Birds of the eastern Sandhills in Holt County, Nebraska. NBR 59: 103-132.

Brown, M.B., S.J. Dinsmore, and C.R. Brown. 2012. Birds of Southwestern Nebraska. Conservation and Survey Division, Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, University of Nebraska—Lincoln, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA.

Jorgensen, J.G. 2012.  Birds of the Rainwater Basin, Nebraska.  Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA.

Jorgensen, J.G. 2016.  A summary of 2015 breeding bird surveys of selected Rainwater Basin wetlands.  Nongame Bird Program of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA.

Mollhoff, W.J. 2004. The 2002 Nebraska Nesting Report. NBR 72: 153-158.

Mollhoff, W.J. 2016. The Second Nebraska Breeding Bird Atlas. Bull. Univ. Nebraska State Museum Vol 29. University of Nebraska State Museum, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA.

Phillips, A.R. 1986. The known birds of North and Middle America. Part 1. Published by the author, Denver Colorado, USA.

Phillips, A.R. 1991. The known birds of North and Middle America. Part 2. Published by the author, Denver Colorado, USA.

Pyle, P. 1997. Identification Guide to North American Birds. Part I, Columbidae to Ploceidae. Slate Creek Press, Bolinas, California, USA.

Rapp, W.F. Jr., J.L.C. Rapp, H.E. Baumgarten, and R.A. Moser. 1958. Revised checklist of Nebraska birds. Occasional Papers 5, Nebraska Ornithologists’ Union, Crete, Nebraska, USA.

Rosche, R.C. 1982. Birds of northwestern Nebraska and southwestern South Dakota, an annotated checklist. Cottonwood Press, Crawford, Nebraska, USA.

Rosche, R.C. 1994. Birds of the Lake McConaughy area and the North Platte River valley, Nebraska.  Published by the author, Chadron, Nebraska, USA.

Sauer, J.R., D.K. Niven, J.E. Hines, D.J. Ziolkowski, Jr, K.L. Pardieck, J.E. Fallon, and W.A. Link. 2017.  The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966 – 2015 (Nebraska). Version 2.07. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, Maryland, USA.

Williams, F. 1976. Southern Great Plains Region. American Birds 30: 735-739.

Williams, F. 1981. Southern Great Plains Region. American Birds 35: 198-201.

Williams, F. 1985. Southern Great Plains Region. American Birds 39: 182-185.

Recommended Citation

Silcock, W.R., and J.G. Jorgensen.  2020.  Yellow-headed Blackbird (Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus). In Birds of Nebraska — Online.

Birds of Nebraska – Online

Updated 1 Apr 2020