Tricolored Blackbird

Agelaius tricolor

  • Version: 3.0 — Published September 6, 2017
  • Edward C. Beedy, William J. Hamilton, III, Robert J. Meese, Daniel A. Airola, and Peter Pyle

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Figure 1. Distribution of the Tricolored Blackbird.
Adult (Definitive Basic) male Tricolored Blackbird.

Medium-sized blackbird, sexually dimorphic in size, plumage, and behavior. Adult males in Definitive Basic plumage are larger than females, possess striking red, white, and black plumage, and display conspicuously when breeding. Definitive Basic male plumage becomes glossier in spring due to wearing of brown feather fringes.

© Ted Beedy, California, United States, 25 April 2017
Adult (Definitive Basic) female Tricolored Blackbirds.

Adult female mostly dark brown dorsally, relatively whitish chin and throat, occasionally with faint pinkish or peach wash; heavily streaked ventrally with dark brown streaks merging to form largely solid dark brown belly; faint to conspicuous reddish-orange shoulder-patch often subtended by buffy white stripe.

© Ted Beedy, California, United States, 25 April 2017

The Tricolored Blackbird is California's blackbird—more than 99% of the global population occurs within the state. The geographic range of this species is restricted to California's Central Valley and surrounding foothills, coastal and inland localities in southern and central California, scattered sites in northeastern California, Oregon, and central Washington, a single site in western Nevada, and locally in northwestern Baja California (Figure 1).

This blackbird species is sexually dimorphic in size, plumage, and behavior. Males are larger than females, possess striking red, white, and black plumage, and display conspicuously when breeding. The species nests in a variety of substrates, exhibits a range of foraging behaviors, and consumes a diverse array of arthropods, seeds, and ripening grains. It is sympatric with and morphologically similar to the Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus), but unlike the Red-winged, the Tricolored Blackbird breeds in dense colonies and may travel several kilometers to secure food for nestlings. In addition, male Tricolored Blackbirds defend small territories used only for breeding and mate with 1 to 4 females.

The Tricolored Blackbird forms the largest colonies of any North American passerine species. Breeding colonies historically attracted tens or even hundreds of thousands of birds. In the 1930s, a single colony was estimated to include more than 200,000 nests (about 300,000 adults) and cover almost 24 ha (Neff 1937). Colonies require suitable nesting substrate surrounded by foraging habitats that may include semi-natural grasslands, agricultural croplands, or alkali scrub habitats, and a nearby source of freshwater. In winter months, the Tricolored Blackbird may form single-species, and sometimes single-sex, flocks, but the species commonly forages and roosts together with other blackbird species. Nesting locations often change from year-to-year, perhaps an adaption to exploit ephemeral habitats or high abundance of arthropod resources, or to enhance prospects for finding secure nesting sites. The species is an itinerant breeder, nesting more than once at the same or, more commonly, different locations during the breeding season.

The conservation of the Tricolored Blackbird is a matter of increasing concern owing to population declines, and because the species' habit of nesting in large colonies make it more vulnerable to nest failures that can affect thousands of nests at a single colony. Studies in the 1970s reported that the overall population was greatly reduced from that observed during the 1930s. More recently, intensive population surveys in California identified a decline of 37% between 1994 and 1997, and a 63% decline between 2008 and 2014, followed by an increase of 22% in 2017. Historically, this species was harvested as food for miners and residents of urban areas, and shooting by farmers attempting to reduce damage to rice and other grain crops in the Sacramento Valley has been documented since 2007 (RJM, personal observation). The Tricolored Blackbird has experienced high annual breeding losses due to crop-harvesting activities (except in 2016) and insufficient insect resources, and habitat loss resulting from conversion of rangeland to vineyards, nut orchards, other agricultural crops, and urban development.

Currently considered a Species of Concern by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a Species of Special Concern by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Tricolored Blackbird is under formal status review for listing as Endangered under both the Federal Endangered Species Act (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2015) and California Endangered Species Act (State of California 2015).

Key studies have examined aspects of socioecology (Orians 1961a, Orians 1961b, Collier 1968), vocalizations and behavior (Collier 1968, Orians and Christman 1968), reproductive biology and physiology (Payne 1969), population trends (DeHaven et al. 1975a, Hamilton III et al. 1995, Graves et al. 2013, Meese 2014), distribution and migration (Neff 1937, Neff 1942, DeHaven et al. 1975b, Airola et al. 2016), and reproductive success (Meese 2013, Holyoak et al. 2014). Population declines as indicated by recent censuses (Kelsey 2008, Kyle and Kelsey 2011, Meese 2014) suggest that the Tricolored Blackbird will be increasingly dependent on conservation actions, including active management of breeding and foraging habitats, and more intensive study of overwintering ecology.

Recommended Citation

Beedy, E. C., W. J. Hamilton, III, R. J. Meese, D. A. Airola, and P. Pyle (2017). Tricolored Blackbird (Agelaius tricolor), version 3.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.