Inside Region 3
Midwest Region
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Rusty blackbird courtesy of Lloyd Spitalnik.

Rusty blackbird courtesy of Lloyd Spitalnik.

2014 Rusty Blackbird Spring Migration Blitz Could Lead To
Important Migration Data To Help Counter Population Declines

The rusty blackbird is an unassuming but unique blackbird species that occurs throughout the Midwest region, and is the subject of much concern due to a rapid and troubling trend of population decline. This Spring, you can play a big part in the early steps to reverse that trend.

A lack of knowledge about rusty blackbird biology complicates attempts to combat their population declines. To help address this need, the International Rusty Blackbird Working Group is initiating a Rusty Blackbird Spring Migration Blitz in 2014, a follow-up to the 2009-2011 Winter Blitz.

The objectives of this new effort include: identifying major migration stopover sites for rusty blackbirds, assessing the timing of migration and consistency of their use of stopover sites, and increasing the overall awareness of the rusty blackbird’s situation, engaging conservation partners in rusty blackbird conservation.  Participating in the survey is a fun and easy way to contribute to the conservation of this enigmatic species.

The survey in the Midwest region runs roughly from early March through mid-April, depending on your home state. To learn more about the survey and find out how to participate in your state, visit the Rusty Blackbird Working Group website at http://www.rustyblackbird.org

Rusty blackbirds are similar in size and structure to the abundant Red-winged Blackbird, but are closer in appearance to the Common Grackle. Their pale eyes distinguish them from Red-winged Blackbirds, and their shorter tails and smaller, thinner bills separate them from their grackle cousins. During the nonbreeding season (roughly late summer through early spring), males and females both have a varying amount of rusty edging on their feathers, which gave them their name. During the summer, males are a dull, slightly glossy black and females are a salty, grayish color overall. Their call is also somewhat “rusty”, often described as resembling the sound of a hinge in need of grease.

Rusty blackbirds are the most northerly breeder among blackbirds in North America, breeding in remote forested bogs, swamps, beaver ponds and other wet forested habitats north through Alaska, all the way east along the tree line to northern Labrador. In the Midwest, we reach the extreme southern extent of their breeding range in northern Minnesota and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where breeding is rarely recorded. However, they are a fairly common migrant and winter resident throughout much of the region. Bottomland forests along major waterways or wetland complexes usually hold the highest numbers of birds during migration and winter. Unlike other blackbirds, rusty blackbirds rarely venture away from wooded habitats – you are not likely to see any significant numbers of them in the massive mixed-species blackbird/starling/cowbird flocks that are seen feeding in agricultural areas during the colder months, although they will sometimes roost in the same areas at night. Their somewhat retiring nature, drab appearance, and preference for remote habitats during the summer make the rusty blackbird one of our least well-known birds in the region, despite being fairly common in some areas.

Sadly, their populations appear to be sharply declining. Data from the North American Breeding Bird Survey and Christmas Bird Count indicate an 85-95% decline since the early 1900’s. The contributing factors to this startling drop in numbers likely include degradation of breeding season habitat due to drier conditions, loss of wintering habitat, mercury contamination, indirect effects of control efforts targeted at other blackbird species, or possible competition for food resources with other blackbird species during the non-breeding season.

-- Andy Forbes,
Migratory Birds and State Programs

Last updated: March 31, 2014