The Tricolored Blackbird (Agelaius tricolor)

Western Tanager, September/October 2016

By Dessi Sieburth

A drawing of a male Tricolored Blackbird

A drawing of a male Tricolored Blackbird

The Tricolored Blackbird is a near-endemic California passerine. The male can be identified by its glossy black body with a small red shoulder patch bordered by white. The female is brownish overall with a faintly streaked breast, and a pale throat and supercilium. The bill is thin and pointed. At a first glance, the Tricolored Blackbird may be mistaken for the more common Red-winged Blackbird. It is distinguished from the Red-winged Blackbird by a thinner and more pointed bill. On the Tricolor male, the small red shoulder patch is bordered by white, while on the male Red-winged Blackbird, the red shouldered patch is bordered by yellow. Female Tricolors are darker and have much less streaking overall than female Red-winged Blackbirds.

Tricolored Blackbirds prefer wetlands, flooded rice fields, and agricultural farms. They nest in cattails and they need access to reeds and open water when nesting. The female Tricolored Blackbird will build a cup nest and lay 3-4 eggs. She will sit on the eggs for about 11 days until they hatch, and the nestlings will be ready to fledge in 10-14 days. The adults and juveniles mainly eat insects, especially grasshoppers. During the winter, adults generally eat seeds from tall grasses. They nest in huge colonies, and in fact, Tricolored Blackbirds form the largest breeding colonies of any North American passerine since the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon in 1914.

Over 99% of Tricolored Blackbirds breed here in California. Some small and isolated populations can be found in Oregon, Washington, and western Nevada. Since 1980, the bird has been recorded nesting in 46 of California’s 58 counties. The biggest population is found in the Central Valley, but nesting has also been documented in valleys of northeastern California, Santa Barbara County, and Los Angeles.

In the 1930’s, the Tricolored Blackbird was one of the most abundant birds in California. About 736,000 Tricolored Blackbirds were observed in the Central Valley alone in 1934, and one colony contained over 300,000 birds! However, their numbers have declined significantly, and in 2011, the population was estimated at 258,000 birds. In 2014, that number decreased to just 145,000 birds.

Tricolored Blackbirds face many threats. Habitat loss is the major threat. Many wetlands have been developed or converted into wheat or rye farms to feed cattle. Mass destructions of nests in agricultural fields is another reason for the decline of Tricolored Blackbirds. Triticale fields (wheat and rye hybrid) used for nesting were often harvested before the birds were ready to fledge, causing thousands of deaths. Tricolored Blackbirds were seen as agricultural pests and many were shot. Predators are contributing to the decline as well. Black-crowned Night Herons, for example, have been recorded taking chicks and eggs from about 15,000 Tricolor nests in the Central Valley.

Two male Tricolored Blackbirds and one female (photo by Ian Souza-Cole)

Two male Tricolored Blackbirds and one female (photo by Ian Souza-Cole)

Because of its decline, the Tricolored Blackbird was given an endangered species status in 2014. The listing was temporary and expired in June 2015. The Tricolored Blackbird’s status is now being reviewed, and until a decision is made, the bird has the same protection as endangered species have. There have been several conservation efforts to protect the Tricolored Blackbird, such as monitoring the Central Valley blackbird colonies and paying landowners to delay triticale harvest. Also, the government and environmental organizations have purchased land with nesting habitat from landowners.

In Los Angeles County, Tricolored Blackbirds can be found at several locations. Legg Lake in El Monte is a good place to look, especially in winter, and a few are found at Piute Ponds in Lancaster. Holiday Lake near Lancaster, has the largest breeding colony of Tricolored Blackbirds in Southern California. The lake has dense reeds and is usually dry during nesting season. Water needs to be pumped into the lake to provide nesting habitat for these birds. The funds for pumping water into the lake are provided by donations from volunteers. Also, every 3 years, volunteers participate in a statewide survey to count all Tricolored Blackbirds. The future of the Tricolored Blackbird in Los Angeles depends on us. Volunteers are needed to help with funding and for the next survey in 2017. To find out more details on how you can help, please contact Samantha Arthur at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. (Illustration by Dessi Sieburth: http://protectingourbirds.my-free.website/)

A male Tricolored Blackbird in flight (photo by Teddy Llovet)

A male Tricolored Blackbird in flight (photo by Teddy Llovet)

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