Unlocking the Rusty Blackbird Mystery

By Will Morris March 8, 2013
Rusty Blackbird
Rusty Blackbird

Rusty Blackbird, Bronx Park South, NY, 8 January. Photograph by Laura Meyers.

Have you heard the creaky rusty-hinge song of the Rusty Blackbird lately? Historical accounts paint pictures of an abundant species, easily observed in boreal forest wetlands during the breeding season and wooded wetlands throughout the winter. These days, birders are lucky to catch a glimpse of these often-overlooked birds; Rusty Blackbirds have experienced one of the steepest population declines of any once-common North American bird. Estimates from the last decade suggest that Rusty Blackbirds have experienced an 85-99% population drop over the past 40 years. For the past decade, scientists have been seeking to unlock the secrets of the enigmatic Rusty Blackbird population crash.

Working across the southeastern wintering grounds in areas of Mississippi, Louisiana, and South Carolina, up to the breeding grounds in the Northeastern US and through Canada into Alaska, members of the International Rusty Blackbird Working Group (IRBWG) examine Rusty Blackbird breeding and flocking behaviors, movement patterns, habitat use, and pressures from competing species and predators in order to gain insights that will yield conservation strategies. From 2009-2011, birders throughout the southeastern U.S. tracked and reported Rusty Blackbird observations as part of the Rusty Blackbird Winter Blitz, an annual 2-week period of intensive Rusty surveys. Blitz volunteers reported more than 11,700 Rusty Blackbirds in 2010 and almost 9,500 Rusties in 2011. As a result of these efforts, the IRBWG identified Rusty Blackbird wintering hot spots in many southeastern states. Scientists are using these data to evaluate hotspot habitat to determine what environmental features support large numbers of Rusties during the winter. This represents an important step towards understanding what can be done to protect and conserve this species. Learn more about Winter Blitz results.

Rusty Blackbird male

A male Rusty Blackbird forages in a shallow flooded area. Photo by Gerhard Hofmann and Claudia Mettke-Hofmann.

Although scientists have made huge strides towards understanding Rusty Blackbirds on their breeding and wintering grounds, little is known about the migratory requirements and habits of this species. Important questions include: Are there hot spots where many individuals congregate during migration? Are similar migratory stopover areas used by Rusties each year? Are important migratory stopovers protected, or might these areas be a limiting factor in Rusty Blackbird survival?

To address these questions, the IRBWG is revamping the Rusty Blackbird Blitz. To allow time for planning, the new and improved Rusty Blackbird Spring Migration Blitz will occur in March-April of 2014. However, biologists need your help this spring to guide efforts next year!

Please help provide information on Rusty Blackbird migration by searching for Rusties this March and April in any potentially suitable habitat and reporting those sightings to eBird. You can scout anywhere throughout the Rusty Blackbird’s range- across the eastern United States, throughout the Midwest, and into Canada. Here are some tips for identifying Rusty Blackbirds.

This wetland-loving species can be found in some surprising places, so don’t be surprised if you catch a sighting or two in a place you wouldn’t consider a birding hot spot. Rusties can be found in many habitats from beautiful bottomland hardwood swamps to waterfowl management areas to flooded ditches by the side of the road, so feel free to get creative in your search for this bird!

Rusty Blackbird male

Male Rusty Blackbird. Photo by Gerhard Hofmann and Claudia Mettke-Hofmann.

Rusty Blackbird migration reports will help the IRBWG hone the timing and locations of the Spring 2014 Migration Blitz. It’s easy! Bird as you normally do- but make special effort to record Rusty Blackbirds and report your sightings to eBird. We look forward to hearing where you spot this elusive bird!

This piece was contributed by Judith Scarl and the Rusty Blackbird Working Group.