Rusty Blackbird

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With its squeaky-hinge song, rust-tipped black feathers, and piercing yellow glare, the Rusty Blackbird is not renowned for its vocal performance or its beauty. Instead, this striking songbird rose to fame during the last two decades as a result of its dramatic decline- an 85-99% population crash across only 40 years.

Breeding deep within Canada and Alaska’s boreal forests, and wintering in remote wooded wetlands in the Southeastern U.S., Rusty Blackbirds remained in relative obscurity until the mid-1990s, when their plummeting numbers abruptly propelled them to the forefront of the conservation eye. Suddenly, the Rusty Blackbird represented one of conservation’s biggest mysteries- what was behind this shocking decline?

Rusty Blackbirds are associated with shallow water throughout their life cycle, and these wetlands face a myriad of threats, from agricultural conversion to drying from climate change.  / © Keith Williams

Rusty Blackbirds are associated with shallow water throughout their life cycle, and these wetlands face a myriad of threats, from agricultural conversion to drying from climate change. / © Keith Williams

The answer is alarming. Recent research on this species’ breeding and wintering grounds suggests that there is no one “smoking gun”- rather, a confluence of factors have led to the Rusties’ plight. In particular, the conversion of wooded wetlands on this species’ wintering grounds in the southeastern United States has substantially decreased the amount of high-quality winter habitat for Rusty Blackbirds; more than 60% of these original forests are now devoted to agriculture. However, Rusty Blackbirds face challenges during other phases of their life cycle; for example, Rusty Blackbirds rely on boreal forest wetlands during the breeding season, and these wetlands are increasingly drying due to climate change. Scientists have shown that Rusty Blackbirds have very high levels of mercury on the breeding grounds, and we don’t yet understand how this may impact survival or reproduction.

Conservation Action

Scientists at VCE and partners across the US and Canada are working hard to better understand these Rusty declines and develop conservation strategies to protect the remaining population. The International Rusty Blackbird Working Group (IRBWG) was formed in 2005 to unite Rusty Blackbird researchers and conservation supporters. Between 2009 and 2011, the IRBWG spearheaded a Winter Blitz to encourage birders to find Rusties on their wintering grounds; data from the Blitz allow scientists to better understand Rusty Blackbird wintering habitat requirements and develop future research questions based on this information. Beginning in 2014, the IRBWG and VCE, in partnership with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, eBird, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and dozens of state and provincial partners, launched a Rusty Blackbird Spring Migration Blitz, a 38-state, 9 province, and 3 territory initiative to learn about Rusty Blackbird northward migration, which has been a major missing piece of the conservation puzzle. In addition, the IRBWG has developed a list of research priorities to advance the conservation of this vulnerable songbird.

Additional Resources

Read VCE’s report on Rusty Blackbird habitat occupancy in the Northeast.  Also, the International Rusty Blackbird Working Group hosts a compilation of Rusty Blackbird peer-reviewed publications, related literature, reports, theses, and presentations.