11 Types of Blackbirds Found in California! (ID Guide)
What kinds of blackbirds can you find in California?
Blackbirds are incredibly abundant in California. But while they are common, some of these species get a bad reputation because of their aggressive personalities and tendency to “bully” smaller songbirds at bird feeders (cough… European Starlings… cough).
The term “blackbird” is a bit wide-ranging. For the sake of this article, I only included species in the Icteridae family (except for #2), which consists of all New World Blackbirds, grackles, cowbirds, and even orioles! I think you will find that the more you learn about the below birds, the more you can appreciate them and their natural behavior.
Below you will learn about 11 types of blackbirds in California!
If you’re lucky, you may be able to see blackbirds at my bird feeding station right now! I have a LIVE high-definition camera watching my feeders 24/7. 🙂
#1. Red-winged Blackbird
- Agelaius phoeniceus
- Males are all black, except for a bright red and yellow patch on their shoulders.
- Females are brown and heavily streaked. There is a bit of yellow around their bill.
- Both sexes have a conical bill and are commonly seen sitting on cattails or perched high in a tree overlooking their territory.
Red-winged Blackbird Range Map
During the breeding season, these blackbirds are almost exclusively found in marshes and other wet areas. Females build nests in between dense grass-like vegetation, such as cattails, sedges, and bulrushes. Males aggressively defend the nest against intruders, and I have even been attacked by Red-winged Blackbirds while walking near the swamp in my backyard!
- RELATED: 10 LIVE Bird Feeder Cams From Around the World [Including MINE!]
When it’s the nonbreeding season, Red-winged Blackbirds spend much of their time in grasslands, farm fields, and pastures looking for weedy seeds to eat. It’s common for them to be found in large flocks that feature various other blackbird species, such as grackles, cowbirds, and starlings.
It’s possible to see these blackbirds in California at your feeders!
WATCH a male and female Red-winged Blackbird on my feeders above!
To attract them, try offering a combination of grains, such as millet and cracked corn, along with sunflower seeds.
Red-winged Blackbirds are easy to identify by their sounds!
Listen to their common songs and calls by pressing PLAY above!
If you visit a wetland or marsh in spring, you are almost guaranteed to hear males singing and displaying, trying to attract a mate. Listen for a rich, musical song, which lasts about one second and sounds like “conk-la-ree!”
And at any time of year, you can hear males or females make a “check” call. This sound is used for many purposes, such as when flying, feeding, or defending their territory.
#2. European Starling
- Sturnus vulgaris – This is the only species on this list that isn’t in the Icteridae family.
- A common blackbird in California, they are about the size of an American Robin. Their plumage is black and appears to be shiny.
- Short tail with a long slender beak.
- Breeding adults are darker black and have a green-purple tint. In winter, starlings lose their glossiness, their beaks become darker, and they develop white spots over their bodies.
European Starlings are incredibly common in California!
European Starling Range Map
But, did you know these birds are an invasive species and aren’t even supposed to be here?
Back in 1890, one hundred starlings were brought over from Europe and released in New York City’s Central Park. The man responsible (Eugene Schieffelin) had a mission to introduce all of the birds mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays in North America.
The rest is history as starlings easily conquered the continent, along the way out-competing many of our beautiful native birds. Their ability to adapt to human development and eat almost anything is uncanny to almost no other species.
When starlings visit in small numbers, they are fun to watch and have beautiful plumage. Unfortunately, these aggressive birds can ruin a party quickly when they visit in massive flocks, chasing away all of the other birds while eating your expensive bird food. To keep these blackbirds away from your bird feeders, you will need to take extreme action and implement some proven strategies.
Starlings are impressive vocalists!
Press PLAY above to hear their common songs and calls!
Listen for a mix of musical, squeaky, rasping notes. These blackbirds are also known to imitate other birds.
Here’s something amazing about European Starlings:
It’s the magical way they travel in flocks, called murmurations.
See the video above to watch an incredible display!
#3. Brown-headed Cowbird
- Molothrus after
- Look for a stocky, chunky blackbird with a thick, conical bill.
- Males have completely black bodies with a brown head (hence the name). In poor light, it can be hard to tell that the head is actually brown.
- Females are a plain brown color. There is slight streaking on the belly and a black eye.
Brown-headed Cowbird Range Map
Brown-headed Cowbirds are considered “brood parasites.”
Lastly, here is a question for you to ponder:
How does a Brown-headed Cowbird know it’s one? It’s interesting to think about since they aren’t raised by one of their own species. But after they leave the nest, they never spend time again with whatever type of bird their host mother was!
#4. Brewer’s Blackbird
- Euphagus cyanocephalus
- Males are completely glossy black with bright yellow eyes. If they are in the sun, you may see hints of blue, purple, and metallic green reflecting off their plumage.
- Females are plain brown with pale or brown eyes. They are dark brown on the wings and tail. They DO NOT have streaking, which differentiates them from female Red-winged Blackbirds.
Brewer’s Blackbird Range Map
Look for Brewer’s Blackbirds in California in a variety of habitats, such as marshes, forests, meadows, and grasslands. These birds also adapt incredibly well to the presence of humans and are common in backyards, golf courses, parks, and agricultural areas.
Brewer’s Blackbirds are social birds. For example, they nest in colonies of up to 100 pairs of birds. Having that many eyes together helps watch out for and defend against predators.
After the breeding season is over, huge flocks come together to travel and search for food in grasslands and farm fields. It’s common to see mixed flocks that also include cowbirds, starlings, grackles, and Red-winged Blackbirds.
Listen for a metallic, creaky “ke-see” song, which lasts a bit less than a second. Brewer’s Blackbirds are vocal, and there are a few contact (“tschup“) and alarm (“chuck“) calls you may hear that they use to communicate with each other.
#5. Yellow-headed Blackbird
- Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus
- Males are unmistakable and feature a bright yellow head and breast that contrasts against a black body. They also have distinct white wing patches.
- Females are brown overall. They can be identified from other blackbird species by looking for dull yellow plumage on their chest, face, and throat. If you look closely, you can also see faint white streaks extending down the breast.
During the breeding season, look for Yellow-headed Blackbirds in wetlands, where they raise their young. Females build nests in reeds directly over the water, and males aggressively defend their territories from other males and predators.
Yellow-headed Blackbird Range Map
These birds often share the same habitat as Red-winged Blackbirds. In these instances, the larger Yellow-headed Blackbird typically is dominant and gets to choose the prime nesting locations.
During winter, these blackbirds gather in huge flocks that forage in farm fields and other agricultural areas for grains and weed seeds. These massive gatherings often consist of multiple blackbird species.
When males are trying to attract a mate, you can hear them singing from cattails, small trees, shrubs, fences, shrubs, or bulrushes in the morning and evening. The song typically begins with a few short raspy notes, followed by a screeching buzz.
#6. Bullock’s Oriole
- Icterus bullockii
- Males are bright orange and easily identified by a black line that runs across their eyes and a black throat.
- Females look different and have a yellowish head, chest, and tail with a grayish body.
Bullock’s Orioles are common blackbirds in the western United States.
Bullock’s Oriole Range Map
You can try to attract these blackbirds to your backyard by offering sugary foods, which help them replenish energy after a long migration from Mexico. The best foods to use are orange slices, jelly, and nectar.
A unique skill that Bullock’s Orioles display is their ability to hang upside down for extended periods of time. They do this behavior while searching for insects, eating at your feeders, or building their exquisite woven nests.
Press PLAY above to hear a Bullock’s Oriole singing!
There is a lot of individual variation with the songs of Bullock’s Orioles. But in general, listen for a clear, flutelike whistle that lasts around 3 seconds long and is often interspersed with rattles.
#7. Hooded Oriole
- Icterus cucullatus
- Males range from flame orange to bright yellow, depending on where they live. They have a black throat that extends up to their eyes and beak.
- Females are more consistent and usually appear olive-yellow with a grayish back.
- Look for a slightly curved bill on both sexes.
These blackbirds are sometimes called “palm-leaf orioles” because of their fondness for hanging their nests on the underside of palm fronds. In fact, Hooded Orioles are slowly expanding their range northward as people keep planting ornamental palms to landscape their homes and neighborhoods.
Hooded Oriole Range Map
Most Hooded Orioles migrate south to Mexico for winter. But some individuals stick around and spend the cold months hanging out at bird feeders, eating oranges and jelly, and drinking sugar water. Not a bad life if you ask me! 🙂
These orioles can be hard to see due to their inconspicuous nature. But you should have no problem hearing them if they are around, as both sexes sing! Listen for a series of chatters, warbles, and whistles that last between 1 to 4 seconds (Listen above).
Sounds range quite a bit among individual birds, and it doesn’t have the sweet song characteristic of other oriole species.
#8. Scott’s Oriole
- Icterus parisorum
- Males have bright lemon-colored underparts with a black back and head. Look for white wing bars.
- Females are mostly a yellowish olive color. They have dark wings with two white wing bars.
You can find these beautiful blackbirds in arid areas of the southwest United States. Look for them from the mountains to foothills and all the way down to the desert. These birds forage and nest in palms, junipers, pinyon pines, and especially yuccas, where nectar, insects, and nesting material is gathered.
Scott’s Oriole Range Map
Interestingly, they are one of the few birds that eat Monarch Butterflies. Most species avoid eating these butterflies because they taste bad, which is a result of the milkweed plants they consume. Scott’s Orioles accomplish this feat by only eating the abdomens of the less potent ones.
Scott’s Orioles are easy to find because of their bright yellow plumage.
But you may hear these birds first since males start singing before the sun even comes up and then keep singing periodically through the rest of the day. Females tend only to sing while at the nest in response to their mate.
Press PLAY above to hear a Scott’s Oriole singing!
Listen for a series of clear, low whistles that varies among individuals.
#9. Great-tailed Grackle
- Quiscalus mexicanus
- These blackbirds are fairly large, slender, and have long legs,
- Males are iridescent and completely black. Look for their bright yellow eyes and long V-shaped tail.
- Females are about half the size of males. Their upperparts are dark brown, while below, they feature paler brown plumage.
Great-tailed Grackles are brash blackbirds in California that are often found in large flocks. It’s common to see them living near people, such as at parks, farms, landfills, or neighborhood backyards. Naturally, they live in open forests, marshes, and chaparral.
Great-tailed Grackle Range Map
Their range has spread over the past century because of their fondness for agricultural areas and urban areas. In fact, they are one of the fastest expanding species in North America!
Interestingly, it’s common for “sex-biased” populations of Great-tailed Grackles to occur where female birds greatly outnumber males. This happens for two reasons.
- #1. Females have a higher survival rate in the nest since they are smaller and require less food.
- #2. On average, females live longer than males.
Because of their wide array of vocalizations, it’s hard to describe the sounds that these blackbirds make! Descriptions of their whistles, squeals, and rattles include everything from “sweet, tinkling notes” to “rusty gate hinges.” Regardless, Great-tailed Grackles can sure make a lot of loud noises, especially when they gather in enormous flocks numbering in the tens of thousands!
#10. Bronzed Cowbird
- Molothrus aeneus
- Both sexes are stocky, big-headed, and have a thick bill. They are larger than Brown-headed Cowbirds.
- Males are brownish-black overall with a blue sheen on their wings and tail. The eyes are bright red during the breeding season and change to shades of brown the rest of the year.
- Females are grayish-brown with faint streaks. They have a red eye, but it’s much duller and less noticeable than the males.
Bronzed Cowird Range Map
Look for these blackbirds in open areas, such as farms, golf courses, lawns, fields, and scrubby grasslands.
Like all cowbirds, these birds lay their eggs in the nests of other species. In fact, over 100 types of birds have been reported as hosting eggs from Bronzed Cowbirds.
Orioles are especially susceptible to being parasitized by Bronzed Cowbirds. It’s so frequent that during spring, the singing of Hooded Orioles will actually attract Bronzed Cowbirds!
Their song is a low, “glug-glug-gee,” which sounds a bit insect-like.
#11. Tricolored Blackbird
- Agelaius tricolor
The first thing you will notice about Tricolored Blackbirds is that they look almost identical to Red-winged Blackbirds.
Here’s how to tell correctly tell these two species apart:
- Tricolored Blackbird have a distinctive WHITE band of feathers below their red shoulder patch.
- Their sounds are different. A Tricolored Blackbird sounds similar to a Red-winged, but it’s almost like it’s being squeezed. The calls have been described as buzzy and catlike.
But the biggest difference is that Tricolored Blackbirds have a smaller range in California!
Tricolored Blackbird Range Map
The population of these highly social birds has decreased dramatically over the years. It was estimated they had a few million birds in the 1930s, which is now only around 300,000 individuals.
The reason for their extreme decline is the loss of their preferred habitat, which are wetlands. Many of these areas have been drained and converted to agricultural areas such as orchards, vineyards, and wheat fields.
Do you need additional help identifying blackbirds?
Here are a few books and resources you can purchase that will assist!
National Geographic Guide to the Birds of North America
The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America
Which of these blackbirds have you seen before in California?
Leave a comment below!
The range maps above were generously shared with permission from The Birds of The World, published by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. I use their site OFTEN to learn new information about birds!
To learn more about other birds near you, check out these guides!
The 12 Types of Woodpeckers That Live in California!
The 3 Types of Chickadees That Live in California!