email a friend
printable version
Tricoloured Blackbird Agelaius tricolor
BirdLife is updating this factsheet for the 2016 Red List
Please email us with any relevant information
BirdLife Species Champion Become a BirdLife Preventing Extinctions Programme Supporter
For information about BirdLife Species Champions and Species Guardians visit the BirdLife Preventing Extinctions Programme.

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.

Taxonomic source(s)
AOU. 1998. Check-list of North American birds. American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C.
Sibley, C. G.; Monroe, B. L. 1990. Distribution and taxonomy of birds of the world. Yale University Press, New Haven, USA.
Stotz, D. F.; Fitzpatrick, J. W.; Parker, T. A.; Moskovits, D. K. 1996. Neotropical birds: ecology and conservation. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

18-24cm. A slim, sexually dimorphic New World blackbird. Male is entirely black with dull blue gloss, except for striking epaulets made up of deep red lesser coverts and white median coverts. Female is largely dark blackish-brown with a paler throat and streaked underparts. Juvenile is similar to adult female, but duller and buffier. Similar spp. Identification of this species is difficult owing to its similarity to Red-winged Blackbird A. phoenicius, and to the variability of that species. Males of A. tricolor differ from A. phoenicius in having deeper red epaulets with purer white borders, whereas females have darker brown and less extensively streaked plumage. Both males and females are slimmer-billed and show more square-tipped tails than A. phoenicius. The breeding behaviour of the two species is very different. Voice Male song is a nasal, drawn-out guuuaaaak lasting 1-1.5 seconds. Alarm and flight calls are a nasal chwuk and churr respectively. A range of other short, nasal call notes are heard.

Distribution and population
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.

Population justification
Rich et al (2003)

Trend justification
A very rapid and on-going decline is estimated directly, based on repeated censuses (using the same methods) of the Central Valley population (which comprises the majority of the global population). Recent increases in the number of individuals counted are likely to be attributable to increased survey effort (L. Cook in litt. 2012).

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).

Loss of upland nesting habitat, combined with low reproductive success in native habitats and complete breeding failure in harvested agricultural fields, are the most likely causes of recent declines (Cook and Toft 2005). Additionally, herbicide spraying and contaminated water are suspected to have caused complete breeding failure in several colonies (Beedy and Hamilton 1999). Historic declines may have occurred because of the loss of native wetlands (which have declined in area by over 95% since the arrival of Europeans), loss of grasslands and grasshoppers (a main component of the species's diet), hunting, and large-scale poisoning efforts to control crop depredation that continued until the 1960s (Neff 1937, DeHaven et al. 1975, Cook and Toft 2005). Predation by non-native Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis appears to be a significant threat in California (L. Cook in litt. 2012). Some birds are shot in the rice-growing regions of northern Central Valley (L. Cook in litt. 2012). Losses of formerly productive foraging habitats to perennial, woody crops (primarily almonds and grapes) and to urbanisation are also serious threats. Because breeding success is so poor in native wetlands, protection of these habitats will not reverse population declines in the species: conservation measures must focus on agricultural land and upland habitats as well (DeHaven et al. 1975).

Conservation Actions Underway
It is currently classified in California as a Species of Special Concern and a Migratory Bird of Management Concern, categories which identify reduced populations but do not include the legal protections offered to species listed as threatened (Cook and Toft 2005). A conservation action plan for the species was published in 2007 (Tricolored Blackbird Working Group 2007). Measures have been taken at times to protect nesting colonies of the species, including purchasing portions of crops, or delaying harvest to avoid impacting nests during the active breeding season. These actions and participation by landowners resulted in the recruitment of an estimated 37,000 to 44,000 first-year adults to the 1994 and 1995 breeding seasons (Beedy and Hamilton 1999) and benefited the population in 2003. However, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service take the position that crop purchases or reimbursements for delayed harvest are not a feasible long-term solution for the species' management on private agricultural lands (M. Bond in litt. 2005). Management guidelines have been produced (Beedy and Hamilton 1997, DeHaven 2000). In 2008, an agreement was reached between Audubon California and a local farmer to safeguard a single colony of c.80,000 birds by delaying the harvest of 65 ha of farmland in Tulare County, California where the colony is nesting (Anon. 2008).
Conservation Actions Proposed
Maintain a viable, self-sustaining population throughout current geographic range. Avoid losses of colonies and their associated habitats and increase the breeding population on suitable public and private lands managed for this species. Enhance public awareness and support for protection of habitat and active colonies (Beedy and Hamilton 1997). Create low-risk nesting substrates such as marshes and blackberries within key dairy regions of the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys, to provide alternative nesting sites to grain silage fields, and monitor their use (DeHaven 2000). Delay harvesting or herbicide applications until after the colony completes the breeding cycle (Beedy and Hamilton 1999). Protect and enhance Toledo Pit (Tulare County), an important breeding site (DeHaven 2000). Conduct regular range-wide censuses to monitor population trends. Initiate mark-recapture and ratio-telemetry studies to determine demographic rates such as survival, reproduction, and population growth, and site fidelity as related to reproductive success. Conduct studies of foraging ecology to determine key characteristics and possibilities to enhance foraging habitat. List the species as Endangered under federal law (M. Bond in litt. 2005).

Anon. 2008. Tricoloured mega-colony saved. World Birdwatch 30(2): 5.

Beedy, A.; Hamilton III, W. J. 1997. Tricolored Blackbird status update and management guidelines. September. (Jones & Stokes Associates, Inc. 97-099).

Beedy, E. C.; Hamilton III, W. J. 1999. Tricolored Blackbird Agelaius tricolor. In: Poole, A.; Gill, F. (ed.), The birds of North America, Birds of North America, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.

Cook, L. F.; Toft, C. A. 2005. Dynamics of extinction: population decline in the colonially nesting Tricolored Blackbird Agelaius tricolor. Bird Conservation International 15: 73-88.

DeHaven, R. W. 2000. Breeding Tricolored Blackbirds in the Central Valley, California: a quarter-century perspective. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Sacramento, California, U.S.A.

DeHaven, R. W. 2000. Strategy for exit from the dilemma of Tricolored Blackbirds nesting in dairy silage fields in the San Joaquin Valley, California. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Sacramento, California, U.S.A.

DeHaven, R. W.; Crase, F. T.; Woronecki, P. P. 1975. Breeding status of the Tricolored Blackbird 1969-1972. California Fish and Game 61: 166-180.

Jaramillo, A.; Burke, P. 1999. New World blackbirds: the icterids. Christopher Helm, London.

Kelsey, R. 2008. Results of the 2008 Tricolored Blackbird census: population status and an analysis of statewide trends. US Fish and Wildlife Service, Portland, Oregon.

King, S.L., Twedt, D.J. and Wilson, R.R. 2006. The role of the Wetland Reserve Program in conservation efforts in the Mississippi River Alluvial Valley. Wildlife Society Bulletin 34(4): 914-920.

Meese, R. J. 2009. Contribution of the conservation of silage colonies to Tricolored Blackbird Conservation 2005-2009. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Meese, R. J. 2009. Trapping and banding of tricolored blackbirds (Agelaius tricolor) in the Central Valley in 2009. California Department of Fish & Game and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Meese, R.J. 2008. Detection, monitoring, and fates of Tricolored Blackbird Colonies in 2008 in the Central Valley of California. California Department of Fish & Game and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Neff, J. A. 1937. Nesting distribution of the Tri-coloured Red-wing. Condor 39: 61-81.

Rich, T.D.; Beardmore, C.J.; Berlanga, H.; Blancher, P.J.; Bradstreet, M.S.W.; Butcher, G.S.; Demarest, D.W.; Dunn, E.H.; Hunter, W.C.; Inigo-Elias, E.E.; Martell, A.M.; Panjabi, A.O.; Pashley, D.N.; Rosenberg, K.V.; Rustay, C.M.; Wendt, J.S.; Will, T.C.

Further web sources of information
Explore HBW Alive for further information on this species

View photos and videos and hear sounds of this species from the Internet Bird Collection

Text account compilers
Bird, J., Butchart, S., Derhé, M., Ekstrom, J., Fisher, S., Harding, M., Temple, H., Khwaja, N.

Bond, M., Butcher, G., Cook, L., Cook, R.

IUCN Red List evaluators
Butchart, S., Symes, A.

Recommended citation
BirdLife International (2016) Species factsheet: Agelaius tricolor. Downloaded from on 27/10/2016. Recommended citation for factsheets for more than one species: BirdLife International (2016) IUCN Red List for birds. Downloaded from on 27/10/2016.

This information is based upon, and updates, the information published in BirdLife International (2000) Threatened birds of the world. Barcelona and Cambridge, UK: Lynx Edicions and BirdLife International, BirdLife International (2004) Threatened birds of the world 2004 CD-ROM and BirdLife International (2008) Threatened birds of the world 2008 CD-ROM. These sources provide the information for species accounts for the birds on the IUCN Red List.

To provide new information to update this factsheet or to correct any errors, please email BirdLife

To contribute to discussions on the evaluation of the IUCN Red List status of Globally Threatened Birds, please visit BirdLife's Globally Threatened Bird Forums.

Additional resources for this species

ARKive species - Tricoloured blackbird (Agelaius tricolor) 0

Key facts
Current IUCN Red List category Endangered
Family Icteridae (New World blackbirds)
Species name author (Audubon, 1837)
Population size mature individuals
Population trend Decreasing
Distribution size (breeding/resident) 113,000 km2
Country endemic? No
Links to further information
- Additional Information on this species