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Help Scientists Find Out What’s Happening to Rusty Blackbirds

By Hugh Powell
Rusty Blackbird flock
Rusty Blackbird flock. Photo by Martin Wall via Birdshare.

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.

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.

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American Kestrel by Blair Dudeck / Macaulay Library