Overview

Brief Summary

Biology

Although highly social throughout the year, the tricoloured blackbird's gregarious behaviour becomes most apparent during the breeding season (April to July), when huge colonies may form, consisting of tens of thousands of birds (2) (3). Within the vast colony, many activities are remarkably synchronous, such as nesting, foraging and the males' singing (5). Breeding pairs, which only stay together for a single nesting effort, maintain a small territory of a few square metres around their nest (4). The female tricoloured blackbird builds the nest alone, collecting dry leaves which are dipped in water and woven around strong, upright plant stems, usually around a metre above the ground. A layer of mud and softer materials is then added to help cushion the clutch of three to five eggs, which are incubated by the female for around 12 days. After hatching, the chicks are fed by both parent birds for 10 to 14 days before fledging. Interestingly, adults encourage the fledglings to disperse from the colony by tempting them with food, and then fly away from the colony with the young bird in pursuit (4). Despite feeding mainly upon grains, the tricoloured blackbird is opportunistic and will take a variety of other foods when available, such as insects (particularly grasshoppers) and snails (2) (4). This species usually only forages within five to six kilometres from the colony, hence the proximity of good foraging sites is one of the requirements for colony formation (6). During the winter, the tricoloured blackbird roosts and forages communally, and many colonies withdraw from their breeding grounds and concentrate around the central coast of California and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta (4).
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Description

Despite forming the largest breeding colonies of any North American landbird, the tricoloured blackbird's numbers are rapidly declining (3). The common name of this species derives from the male's plumage, which is almost entirely black, except for patches on the upper wing, near the shoulders, which are bright scarlet with a band of white below. By contrast, the female has predominantly dark brown plumage, which is paler around the throat, and streaked dark grey and brown on the underparts (2) (4). Both sexes possess long, pointed bills and narrow, pointed wings. Juveniles resemble the female adult, although their colouring is paler (4). The tricoloured blackbird produces a range of vocalisations including the male's drawn-out guuuaaaak call, a chwuk alarm call and a churr flight call (2). The male also makes a curious mewing call during the early part of the breeding season (4).
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Distribution

Range Description

Agelaius tricolor is near-endemic to California, breeding mainly in the Central Valley and other points west of the Cascades and Sierra Nevada, U.S.A. It has also been recorded in Oregon, west Nevada (Jaramillo and Burke 1999), Washington (Beedy and Hamilton 1999), and extreme northwest Baja California (Mexico). It has a large range, with an estimated global Extent of Occurrence of 113,000 km2, which has not contracted since the 1930s. Californian birds are thought to make up over 95% of the global population (Cook and Toft 2005). In 1934, systematic surveys estimated over 700,000 adults in just 8 Californian counties, and found breeding birds in 26 counties, including one colony containing over 200,000 nests (c.300,000 adults) covering 24 ha (Neff 1937). Studies in 1969-1972 reported an average of about 133,000 individuals/year in Central Valley, and estimated that the global population had declined by more than 50% since 1934 (DeHaven et al. 1975). Censuses conducted throughout California in 1994, 1997 and 2000 gave figures of 370,000, 233,000 and 162,000 individuals respectively (Beedy and Hamilton 1999, Cook and Toft 2005), equating to a decline of 56% in six years. However, state-wide volunteer-based censuses conducted throughout California located 257,000 individuals attending 121 breeding colonies in 2005 (King et al. 2006), 394,858 in 180 sites in 32 counties in 2008 (Kelsey 2008) and 259,322 at 138 sites in 29 counties in 2011 (Kelsey 2011). These results suggest that recent declines may not have been as severe as previous estimates reported, but that steep declines (almost 35%) occurred between 2008 and 2011. These apparent declines may be due to discrepancies in survey methodology, but are likely to be partly caused by low reproductive success that has been documented in reports over the past three years (Meese 2008, 2009a, 2009b). The Christmas Bird Count has recorded the species regularly at 120 sites over a 39 year period, and that data suggests the population may be relatively stable (G. Butcher in litt. 2006). This species has proven very difficult to sample, as confirmed by the considerable variation in population estimates. To clarify its status, a thorough, unbiased and consistent approach to sampling is needed in the future.

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Tricolored blackbirds (Agelaius tricolor) are found in western coastal North America. They are native to California and parts of Oregon, Washington, and Nevada. Highest concentrations are found in the Central and San Joaquin Valleys of California, as well as coastal areas.

Biogeographic Regions: nearctic (Native )

  • Hamilton, W. 1998. Tricolored Blackbird itinerant breeding in California. Condor, 100: 218-226.
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and California Department of Fish and Game. Tricolored Blackbird status update and management guidelines. 97-099. Sacramento, CA.: E.C. Beedy and W.J. Hamilton III. 1997.
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occurs (regularly, as a native taxon) in multiple nations

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National Distribution

United States

Origin: Native

Regularity: Regularly occurring

Currently: Present

Confidence: Confident

Type of Residency: Year-round

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Global Range: (20,000-200,000 square km (about 8000-80,000 square miles)) Breeding range extends from central southern Oregon south through interior California, and along the coast from central California south to localized areas in northwestern Baja California. Abundance is highest in central and central northern California (Breeding Buird Survey data); most of the largest colonies are in the Central Valley (Beedy and Hamilton 1999). During the nonbreeding period the range contracts somewhat as the species withdraws from several areas around the margins of the breeding range (Beedy and Hamilton 1999).

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Range

Marshes and farmlands of sw Oregon to nw Baja California.
  • Clements, J. F., T. S. Schulenberg, M. J. Iliff, D. Roberson, T. A. Fredericks, B. L. Sullivan, and C. L. Wood. 2014. The eBird/Clements checklist of birds of the world: Version 6.9. Downloaded from http://www.birds.cornell.edu/clementschecklist/download/

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Range

A North American species, over 95 percent of the tricoloured blackbird's global population is found in California, with the remainder found in Oregon, west Nevada, Washington, and extreme north-west Baja California (2). In California, the population is divided into two main regions, a southern California population, found south of the Tehachapi Mountains, and a Central Valley population (4).
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Physical Description

Morphology

Tricolored blackbirds exhibit sexual dimorphism. Males are larger than females and possess dark red shoulder patches with white median coverts on the wings, giving the species its name. Males have brown plumage in the fall. Females are shades of gray with a lighter gray throat. One way to distinguish them from female red-winged blackbirds is that they tend to be darker, have more pointed wingtips, and have more slender bills. They are about 22 cm long with a 35.5 cm wingspan. They weigh approximately 59.5 grams.

Average mass: 59.5 g.

Average length: 22.2 cm.

Average wingspan: 35.5 cm.

Other Physical Features: endothermic ; homoiothermic; bilateral symmetry

Sexual Dimorphism: male larger; male more colorful

  • Sibley, D. 2007. The Sibley Guide to Birds. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc..
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Size

Length: 22 cm

Weight: 68 grams

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Diagnostic Description

Males differ from male red-winged blackbirds by having a darker red shoulder patch with a white or buffy-white border (buff-yellow or absent in redwing); females are much darker than most races of the redwing and differ from first-year male redwings in lacking a large red shoulder patch; also, females have a bill that is thicker at the base and more sharply pointed (Peterson 1990).

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Type Information

Type for Agelaius tricolor
Catalog Number: USNM A2836
Collection: Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, Department of Vertebrate Zoology, Division of Birds
Sex/Stage: Male; Adult
Preparation: Skin: Whole
Collector(s): T. Nuttall
Year Collected: 1836
Locality: Santa Barbara, California, United States, North America
  • Type: Audubon. 1837. Birds Of America (Folio). 4: pl. 388, fig. 1.
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Type for Agelaius tricolor
Catalog Number: USNM A2836
Collection: Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, Department of Vertebrate Zoology, Division of Birds
Sex/Stage: Male; Adult
Preparation: Skin: Whole
Collector(s): T. Nuttall
Year Collected: 1836
Locality: Santa Barbara, California, United States, North America
  • Type: Audubon. 1837. Birds Of America (Folio). 4: pl. 388, fig. 1.
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Ecology

Habitat

Habitat and Ecology

Habitat and Ecology
It is a lowland species, but has bred to 1,300 m in the Klamath area (Oregon) and along the west side of the Sierras (Beedy and Hamilton 1999). It breeds in freshwater marshes with tall emergent vegetation, in upland habitats (especially thickets of non-native Himalayan blackberry Rubus discolor), and in silage fields (Jaramillo and Burke 1999, Cook and Toft 2005), with 50% of the birds in California during the 2008 statewide survey observed nesting in silage fields (Kelsey 2008). It forages in agricultural areas, particularly where livestock are present and grass is short, and shows a preference for roosting in marshes (Jaramillo and Burke 1999). An opportunistic forager, the species takes any locally abundant insect including grasshoppers (Orthoptera), beetles and weevils (Coleoptera), caddis fly larvae (Trichoptera), moth and butterfly larvae (Lepidoptera), dragonfly larvae (Odonata), and lakeshore midges (Diptera), as well as grains, snails, and small clams (Beedy and Hamilton 1999). Breeding typically occurs between April and July, when individuals congregate to form massive breeding colonies that are larger than those of any other extant North American landbird following the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon Ectopistes migratorius (Cook and Toft 2005). Reproductive success is significantly higher in non-native upland vegetation (primarily Himalayan blackberry) than it is in native wetland vegetation (cattail Typha spp. and bulrush Scirpus spp.), its predominant historic breeding habitat (Cook and Toft 2005). In silage fields, which hold a significant proportion of the breeding population (17% in 2000), reproductive success can be disastrously low, as harvesting can result in the loss of entire colonies with tens of thousands of nests (Cook and Toft 2005). Although it can be found throughout the breeding range during winter, the species is nevertheless partly migratory, with large numbers of birds being seen along the central Californian coast in the winter even though few nest in this area in the summer (Jaramillo and Burke 1999).


Systems
  • Terrestrial
  • Freshwater
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Tricolored blackbirds are found in areas near water, such as marshes, grasslands, and wetlands. They require some sort of substrate nearby to build nests. This substrate is often in the form of aquatic vegetation. They also need foraging areas, which can consist of grassland or agricultural pastures such as rice, grain, or alfalfa.

Habitat Regions: temperate ; terrestrial ; freshwater

Terrestrial Biomes: savanna or grassland

Wetlands: marsh

Other Habitat Features: agricultural

  • Beedy, E., W. Hamilton. 1999. The Birds of North America. Philadelphia, PA: The Birds of North America, Inc..
  • Orians, G. 1960. Autumnal breeding in the Tricolored Blackbird. Auk, 77: 379-398.
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Comments: Breeding habitat includes freshwater marshes of cattails, tule, bulrushes, and sedges (AOU 1983). Nests are in vegetation of marshes or thickets, sometimes on the ground. Historically this species was strongly tied to emergent marshes; in recent decades much nesting has shifted to non-native vegetation (e.g., Himalayan blackberry). In migration and winter these blackbirds inhabit open cultivated lands and pastures as well as marshes (AOU 1983).

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Historically, the tricoloured blackbird bred in lowland freshwater marshes. Today, as much of this species' wetland habitat has been converted for agriculture, it can more commonly be found nesting in grain silage, as well as in thickets of the non-native Himalyan blackberry (Rubus discolor) in upland regions (3).
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Migration

Non-Migrant: Yes. At least some populations of this species do not make significant seasonal migrations. Juvenile dispersal is not considered a migration.

Locally Migrant: Yes. At least some populations of this species make local extended movements (generally less than 200 km) at particular times of the year (e.g., to breeding or wintering grounds, to hibernation sites).

Locally Migrant: No. No populations of this species make annual migrations of over 200 km.

Generally this species withdraws from the northern tip of the breeding range for winter.

Foraging occurs in flocks that range widely to more than 15 kilometers from the nesting colony (Beedy and Hamilton 1999).

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Trophic Strategy

Tricolored blackbirds are omnivorous, feeding on both animal and plant matter. Their diet depends on the region they live in and what crops or insects are most abundant. Insect prey includes grasshoppers, beetles, moths, and fly larvae. Their diet also includes grains, seeds, rice, and other crops. Nestlings are fed primarily insects.

Animal Foods: insects

Plant Foods: seeds, grains, and nuts; fruit

Primary Diet: omnivore

  • Skorupa, J., R. Hothem, R. DeHaven. 1980. Foods of breeding Tricolored Blackbirds in agricultural areas of Merced County. Condor, 82: 465-467.
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Comments: Insects (e.g., beetles, caterpillars) comprise a large portion of the diet. Diet includes seeds and grain in fall and winter.

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Associations

Many tricolored blackbirds are dependent on rice-growing fields and duck-hunting areas of central California. Their populations change in response to insect abundances. They are ecologically dependent on insect outbreaks for food. Thus, they help to keep rampant insect populations under control.

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Tricolored blackbirds are preyed on by a variety of species. Predators include mammals such as gray foxes (Urocyon cinereoargentus) and skunks (Mephitis mephitis). Larger birds, such as common ravens (Corvus corax), black-crowned night herons (Nycticorax nycticorax), northern harriers (Circus cyaneus) and Cooper’s hawks (Accipiter cooperii) also prey on tricolored blackbirds. In more urban areas, feral cats (Felis catus) prey on nests. Tricolored blackbirds do not fight back against predators and tend to be less aggressive than red-winged blackbirds.

Known Predators:

  • gray foxes (Urocyon cinereoargentus)
  • skunks (Mephitis mephitis)
  • common ravens (Corvus corax)
  • black-crowned night herons (Nycticorax nycticorax)
  • northern harriers (Circus cyaneus)
  • Cooper’s hawks (Accipiter cooperii)
  • feral cats (Felis catus)

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Population Biology

Number of Occurrences

Note: For many non-migratory species, occurrences are roughly equivalent to populations.

Estimated Number of Occurrences: 81 - 300

Comments: This species is represented by a large number of nesting colonies, but most individuals may be concentrated in a very few. For example, in the 1990s, 60 percent were concentrated in the ten largest colonies (Hamilton et al. 1995; Beedy and Hamilton 1997; Hamilton 2000). Additionally, many individuals may concentrate into relatively few winter roosts.

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Global Abundance

100,000 - 1,000,000 individuals

Comments: Total adult population size in the mid-2000s was approximately 260,000 (Tricolored Blackbird Working Group 2007).

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General Ecology

These birds are highly gregarious. They roost and forage in flocks (Beedy and Hamilton 1999).

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Life History and Behavior

Behavior

Tricolored blackbirds have a nasal “oo-grreee” call that begins loud and gradually gets softer. They also emit a “drdodrp” call. Their calls have a lower pitch than those of red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus). Females tend to be silent during incubation.

Communication Channels: visual ; acoustic

Perception Channels: visual ; tactile ; acoustic ; chemical

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Life Expectancy

Not much is known about the lifespan of tricolored blackbirds due to few banded recoveries. They can live up to 13 years. Predation and harsh weather conditions account for the majority of mortality. Further studies on survivorship need to be conducted.

Range lifespan

Status: wild:
13 (high) years.

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Lifespan, longevity, and ageing

Maximum longevity: 13.2 years (wild) Observations: Females breed in first year; males apparently defer breeding until at least second year (http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/).
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Reproduction

Males attract females by singing and displaying courtship behaviors. The species exhibits polygyny, one male may breed with 1 to 4 females.

Mating System: polygynous

Tricolored blackbirds breed in both the spring and fall. Tricolored blackbirds exhibit itinerant breeding, meaning that they breed twice a year in two separate locations. Spring breeding takes place in mid-March through late April. Breeding colonies consisting of up to 200,000 nests. Clutch sizes in both breeding seasons ranged between one and four. The most common clutch size is three. Incubation lasts between 11 and 14 days. Females build nests and lay their eggs in approximately one week. Females also take part in incubating the young. Fledging occurs approximately 9 days after the chicks are born. An additional 15 days or so are required for the young to live away from their parents. Males begin to breed when they are two years of age. Females are able to breed when they are one year of age.

Breeding interval: Breeding intervals are not reported.

Breeding season: Breeding can occur in spring and in fall.

Range eggs per season: 1 to 4.

Average eggs per season: 3.

Range time to hatching: 11 to 14 days.

Average fledging age: 9 days.

Average time to independence: 14 days.

Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female): 1 years.

Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male): 2 years.

Key Reproductive Features: iteroparous ; seasonal breeding ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); sexual ; oviparous

Males and females care for the young. Females remain at nests during the daytime to incubate the eggs. Males care for the young after they hatch. They range up to 6.5 km to acquire food for nestlings.

Parental Investment: altricial ; male parental care ; female parental care ; pre-fertilization (Provisioning, Protecting: Female); pre-hatching/birth (Provisioning: Female, Protecting: Female); pre-weaning/fledging (Provisioning: Male, Protecting: Male, Female)

  • Beedy, E., W. Hamilton. 1999. The Birds of North America. Philadelphia, PA: The Birds of North America, Inc..
  • Hamilton, W. 1998. Tricolored Blackbird itinerant breeding in California. Condor, 100: 218-226.
  • Orians, G. 1960. Autumnal breeding in the Tricolored Blackbird. Auk, 77: 379-398.
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and California Department of Fish and Game. Tricolored Blackbird status update and management guidelines. 97-099. Sacramento, CA.: E.C. Beedy and W.J. Hamilton III. 1997.
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Nesting occurs in April-June. Males defend small territories within colonies and mate with 1-4 females. Clutch size is 3-4. Incubation, by female, lasts about 11 days (Terres 1980). Both parents feed young. Young leave nest 13 days after hatching. Two broods/year. Nests in large colonies (up to thousands of individuals). These blackbirds are itinerant breeders; they may nest more than once at different locations during a single breeding season (Beedy and Hamilton 1999). They often change nesting locations from year to year. Hamilton et al. 1995) found that 19 of 72 colonies (1991-1994) were active the following year (Hamilton et al. 1995). Of 75 colonies active in 1997, 19 were within 500 meters of colonies active in 1994 (Beedy and Hamilton 1997).

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Molecular Biology and Genetics

Molecular Biology

Barcode data: Agelaius tricolor

The following is a representative barcode sequence, the centroid of all available sequences for this species.


There are 2 barcode sequences available from BOLD and GenBank.

Below is a sequence of the barcode region Cytochrome oxidase subunit 1 (COI or COX1) from a member of the species.

See the BOLD taxonomy browser for more complete information about this specimen and other sequences.

NNNNNNNNNNNTTTTCGGTGCATGAGCCGGNATAGTAGGTACCGCCCTAAGCCTCCTCATCCGAGCAGAACTAGGCCAACCTGGAGCCCTTCTAGGAGACGATCAAGTTTACAACGTAGTTGTCACGGCCCATGCTTTCGTAATAATCTTCTTCATAGTCATGCCAATTATAATCGGAGGGTTCGGAAACTGACTAGTTCCTCTAATAATCGGAGCCCCCGACATAGCATTCCCACGAATAAACAACATAAGCTTCTGACTACTTCCACCATCCTTCCTCCTCCTCCTGGCATCCTCCACAGTTGAAGCAGGCGTAGGCACAGGCTGAACAGTGTATCCCCCACTAGCAGGCAACCTAGCTCACGCCGGAGCCTCAGTCGACCTTGCAATCTTCTCCCTACACCTAGCCGGTATCTCTTCAATCCTAGGAGCAATCAACTTTATTACAACAGCAATCAACATGAAACCCCCTGCCCTCTCACAATACCAAACCCCCCTATTCGTTTGATCCGTACTGATCACTGCAGTGCTATTACTTCTATCTCTACCCGTCCTCGCCGCAGGGATCACAATACTTCTCACAGACCGTAACCTCAACACCACATTCTTTGACCCTGCCGGAGNAGGAGACCCCGTACTATACCAACACCTGTTCTGNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNN
-- end --

Download FASTA File

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Statistics of barcoding coverage: Agelaius tricolor

Barcode of Life Data Systems (BOLDS) Stats
Public Records: 2
Specimens with Barcodes: 2
Species With Barcodes: 1
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Conservation

Conservation Status

IUCN Red List Assessment


Red List Category
EN
Endangered

Red List Criteria
A2bc+3bc+4bc

Version
3.1

Year Assessed
2012

Assessor/s
BirdLife International

Reviewer/s
Butchart, S. & Symes, A.

Contributor/s
Bond, M., Butcher, G., Cook, L. & Cook, R.

Justification
This colonially breeding species is listed as Endangered because available information indicates that it is undergoing very rapid declines owing to loss of its upland nesting habitat, low reproductive success in native habitats and complete breeding failure in harvested agricultural fields. A possible reduction in the rate of decline would lead to the species being downlisted to a lower threat category if confirmed.


History
  • Endangered (EN)
  • Endangered (EN)
  • Least Concern (LC)
  • Lower Risk/least concern (LR/lc)
  • Lower Risk/least concern (LR/lc)
  • Lower Risk/least concern (LR/lc)
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