Help Scientists Find Out What’s Happening to Rusty Blackbirds

By Hugh Powell
March 1, 2014
Rusty Blackbird flock Rusty Blackbird flock. Photo by Martin Wall via Birdshare.
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It’s probably North America’s least-known blackbird, and the one most in need of attention. Rusty Blackbirds breed in wet woodlands across the boreal forests of northern North America and winter largely in the southeastern U.S. Breeding males are glossy black; breeding females are a silvery, charcoal gray. During winter, both sexes are extensively rusty, but they lose this coloration during late winter and spring migration. Both sexes have bright yellow eyes.

Sadly, Rusty Blackbirds have the distinction of being one of the most sharply declining songbirds in North America. An estimated 85 percent to 95 percent of the population has been lost in the last half-century. Scientists are unsure why, and they’ve formed an International Rusty Blackbird Working Group to work on the mystery.

To solve it, they need information on where these birds are—and that’s where you can help. The Rusty Blackbird Spring Migration Blitz is an organized effort to get birders to go out during March through mid-June to search for the species. Each state, province, and territory in the species’ range has been assigned a specific timeframe to search—Alabamans start on March 1; Alaskans get going in late April—so that the results can be compiled to produce an overall picture of Rusty Blackbird migration. The goal is to understand migration routes and to identify key migration hotspots that may be important to conserve.

It’s easy to participate. Just check the target dates for your state or province. Then go out birding! Report your observations to eBird (whether you see Rusty Blackbirds or not). As you enter your trip report, you’ll see a “Rusty Blackbird Spring Migration Blitz” survey type—please use that one. If you need it, you can find more instructions and guidelines for data collection on the Blitz website. You can also get in touch with your local Blitz coordinator, and follow the project on Facebook for updates.

male rusty blackbirdMale Rusty Blackbird. Photo by weedmandan via Birdshare.
female rusty blackbirdDuring migration, female Rusty Blackbirds lose their rusty winter coloration, becoming mostly charcoal gray. Photo by Lloyd Spitalnik.

Key facts about Rusty Blackbirds

  • look for them in wet woodlands
  • listen for their distinctive “rusty hinge” song
  • they may flock with Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles
  • they are small blackbirds with bright yellow eyes and small bills
  • they winter mainly in the southeastern U.S., breed mainly in Canada and Alaska

For detailed help in identifying Rusty Blackbirds from similar species such as Common Grackle, Brewer’s Blackbird, Red-winged Blackbird, and Brown-headed Cowbird, visit All About Birds or download this detailed Rusty Blackbird identification guide [PDF] from the International Rusty Blackbird Working Group. Also check the working group’s online photo gallery for more photos of Rusty Blackbirds.


  • Arthur J. Gest

    Not sure wether the data is relevant or not, but I live in the Denver Colorado metro area and there have been several Rusty Blackbird sitings here in early February.

    I realize their typical range is east of us, normally in Kansas, and did note that Colorado was not listed I assume this is why.

    Would any data coming out of Colorado be of benefit? Regards A.J. Gest. DFO member.

  • Pamela Denius Gillam

    I saw a rusty blackbird in Sharon Woods Metro Park in Westerville, OH this January. I posted the siting on I’ll continue to be on the lookout for this bird.

  • Robin Brady

    I saw this article this morning on Facebook and just looked out my home office window to see two males and a female on my bird feeder shelf. I am located in Bosque County, Texas which is on the western edge of their area. What a treat.

  • A Rusty Blackbird is being currently observed ( March 3rd, 2014) at Harkins Slough off of Buena Vista Dr. in Watsonville, Ca.
    Harkins Slough Rd. dead ends into the slough and that is where the bird is being observed.

  • Hi Arthur, thanks for your comment! All Rusty Blackbird data is valuable, so we’d love to see your Rusty sightings reported in eBird. The states that we targeted through the Blitz are the ones that have the most Rusty Blackbird pass-through during migration, but data on Rusty Blackbird sightings, habitat use, behavior, and associations with other species will help us assess the migratory ecology of this bird, regardless of where these observations come from.

    Thanks for helping with our Blitz effort!

    All the best,
    Judith Scarl
    International Coordinator, Rusty Blackbird Spring Migration Blitz

  • Thanks, Pamela! Ohio may be an important pass-through state for this species, so the Blitz will last for six weeks in your state. Thanks for being on the lookout!

    Judith Scarl,
    International Coordinator, Rusty Blackbird Spring Migration Blitz

  • Hi Robin, great coincidence! Did you take any photos? We’d love to see photos of the migrating birds. Thanks for reporting your observations!
    Judith Scarl

  • Jennifer Bell

    This looks exactly like the birds that hang out in the Home Depot parking lot, that is just a block up from what little of the wetlands that was left after the fight with the developers in Playa del Rey, California. I’ve seen them flying to and from the wetlands, and this is the only place they like to hang out,in the parking lot at Home Depot (strange), I’ve seen them no where else. I always wanted to know what they were, because they have a very beautiful and unusual song. I knew if I heard a recording, that I would be sure it is them. Well, it’s not, they don’t sound the same. So I’ll continue my search. So close!

  • Hi Judith – Heard Natural Science Museum & Wildlife Sanctuary in Texas will post this on our Facebook (and Twitter) page tonight. Hope it helps!

  • Arthur Fish III

    Hi! There’s been a rusty here in Huntington Beach, California since around February. I took my photos of this beautiful bird February 6, 2014.

    Unsure if photos can be posted here…if not here’s a link to the flickr photo

  • William

    Millions of Redwing Blackbirds have been deliberately poisoned by state governments. If the Rusty Blackbird flocks with them, there is your answer to the decline in their population.

  • Thanks, Stephanie! We appreciate the help in spreading the word!

  • John Jarrosiak

    Hi Jennifer,

    It is a very high probability that you are seeing Brewer’s Blackbirds. They love parking lots and eat anything from dead bugs stuck on the grills of cars to carelessly discarded french fries and other “human” foods tossed out of windows and left in lots.

  • Looks very similar to a European Starling which if I’m not mistaken is an invasive species open to hunting/poisoning.

  • Michael

    In November in Arlington Texas near an abated landfill we(a U of Dallas Ornithology class) saw 5 in a deadfall tree in the middle of the overflow pond. Only 1 male.

  • John Jarrosiak

    Hi William. I know that many farmers poison the black birds, however I did NOT know that our state government(s) is intentionally poisoning the red winged black bird too. Can you elaborate on this accusation please? Why is our state governments poisoning the blackbirds? Do you know what the poison is that they are using and how it is being applied (crop dusters, individual sprays,pellets, etc.)? I’m very curious and would love to bring this topic into the light! Thank you William!

  • Maureen

    I agree with Christian that most people assume the Rusty Blackbird is a Starling. In our area in Alberta the Starlings arrive first, the first pair I spotted was mid March, but usually disappear in later spring. The blackbirds arrive together and eat at our feeders, the Brewsters and Red-Winged arriving first then the Rusties. I have always had some Red-winged Blackbirds that stick all season with the Brewsters and you can watch their wings turn red as they mature. Due to a tendency in Alberta with farmers and towns draining sloughs they are in a fight for survival and why you see them at the feeders.

  • santi souk

    Just just a flock of 60-70 Rusty Blackbirds in Central Alberta yesterday morning… was my first time seeing them.

    I have posted the sighting on eBird this morning.!/photo.php?fbid=10152786427625903&set=o.142914269087072&type=1&theater&notif_t=like



  • Halane DeShane

    I just took photo’s of a male and female Rusty Blackbird on my tray feeder , the weekend of Feb. 21st ! They stayed for quite a while and ate a lot !