ProjectsForestsRusty Blackbird ConservationBackground

Why We Study Rusty Blackbirds

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Population trends over the last 30 years (line with dots is CBC index trend, line with diamonds is BBS index trend, from Niven et al. 2004).

Population trends over the last 30 years (line with dots is CBC index trend, line with diamonds is BBS index trend, from Niven et al. 2004).

Rusty Blackbirds (Euphagus carolinus) breed in boreal forest wetlands from northern New England throughout Canada to Alaska.  Once common members of large mixed-species blackbird flocks on their wintering grounds in the southeastern U.S., Rusty Blackbird populations have declined by 85-99% over the past 40 years. The Breeding Bird Survey has found a 10% decline per year through the 1990s. In a recent study of boreal forest-breeding birds, Rusty Blackbirds experienced the steepest declines, leading scientists to conclude that the Rusty Blackbird is one of the most precipitously declining species in North America. Only within the last few decades are scientists beginning to understand Rusty Blackbird breeding and wintering biology; recent studies on habitat requirements, nesting behaviors, impacts of predation, and winter foraging and roosting behaviors allow us to begin to develop effective management plans to support the conservation of this vulnerable species.

Typical Rusty Blackbird breeding habitat / © Shannon Buckley

Typical Rusty Blackbird breeding habitat / © Shannon Buckley

As scientists gain an increased understanding of the basic biology of the Rusty Blackbird, our focus shifts from understanding the declines that plagued this once-abundant species, to developing on-the-ground action plans to conserve the birds that remain.  Understanding the habitat requirements of this species throughout its life cycle is critical to determine what management strategies will most efficiently maintain- and even increase- existing populations.

VCE is a member of the International Rusty Blackbird Working Group (IRBWG), which was founded in 2005 to foster communications among Rusty Blackbird scientists, land managers and decision-makers.  In addition to independent research conducted by its members, the IRBWG coordinates large-scale, initiatives such as the Winter Blitz and the Spring Migration Blitz.