This story originally appeared in the September/October 2016 issue of Bird Watcher’s Digest.
“Majestic” is a word that will never be used to describe the rusty blackbird. Its drab plumage and reclusive ways keep it squarely out of the spotlight. Early accounts of rusty blackbirds describe their migratory flocks as “blackening the skies.” Today, in many places, it can take a Herculean effort just to find a rusty or two. Rarely seen and hardly noticed, the rusty blackbird has begun to slip away.
Some describe this species (Euphagus carolinus) as an “unsung passenger pigeon,” due to its plight. It seems to be on a similar trajectory. If it had flashier plumage or a different name (“boreal oriole” has a nice ring), maybe we would have paid attention sooner. Since the 1960s, 90 percent of the population of rusty blackbirds seems to have quietly disappeared, with evidence of the downturn dating back to the 19th century. Although the decline has been quite catastrophic, no one noticed until recently. In the late 1990s, a few scientists heralded the first warnings and formed the International Rusty Blackbird Working Group. Their efforts initiated a flurry of research and conservation action for this species. Birders across North America are needed immediately to help bring the rusty blackbird back from the brink.
I spent several years hunting for breeding rusties in Nova Scotia, where populations are dropping fast. We visited wetland after wetland where they’d been sighted only a few years before, expecting them to return. For weeks we squelched knee-deep in sphagnum, the stench of methane bubbling up from the mud. We broadcast their calls on loudspeakers and hoped for a reply. Again and again, we heard just the ringing of the juncos, the trill of swamp sparrows, and the occasional cackling screech of a grackle, giving us moments of false hope.
Finally, we found one. My field assistant and I stumbled across a tiny semblance of a wetland: muddy depressions left by logging machinery at the side of a clearcut. Immediately after we played the call, a rusty swooped at our heads, scraping out his burbling, mechanical cackle that sounded like a VHS tape on fast-forward. His mate watched us from a nearby branch, her bright yellow eye fixed on our intrusion. They called back and forth for a few moments while we stood stock still, surprised at our own luck. The rattle of a perturbed squirrel jarred them, and they disappeared into a thicket of young spruce. They were instantly camouflaged, and we didn’t see them again.
When they sing and why are mysteries. We’ve put remote microphones near nests and left them to record in our absence. Rusties will call at regular intervals for hours, and then, inexplicably, be silent for days. There weren’t many places for us to listen. We searched over 60 wetlands, bogs, and mud holes in the woods where they’d been seen in the past five years and found fewer than a dozen rusty blackbirds. Something is happening, and it’s not good.
In the past, these migratory flocks were dense, raucous single-species groups. These days, you’ll most often find them quietly embedded in a mixed flock of grackles or other blackbirds and sometimes with robins or blue jays. They can be hard to distinguish on the move, especially in their breeding plumage and among grackles. Rusties are stealthier, quieter. They hang back just a bit from their gregarious, boisterous cousins. It can be a challenging game of “one of these things is not like the others.” It’s best to wait to see them fly and look for those with short, stubby tails, quite unlike the flashy long club of a grackle tail.
People often assume rusties are a nuisance because of their troublesome associates, but they are rarely pests to crops. Sometimes they are shot or poisoned as they forage by farmers looking to eliminate other blackbirds.
Some opt not to migrate at all, overwintering even in very cold places, although we don’t know why. To the shock and delight of thousands of online followers of the Nova Scotia Bird Society, a local amateur birder regularly shared photos of Ralph, the rusty visiting her feeder, throughout this past winter. He happily enjoyed seed, flanked by mourning doves and chickadees.
Rusties sometimes pop up in even stranger habitat during migration. Last April, as they were returning to their breeding grounds, I visited Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley to help a friend and former field assistant evaluate a used car. We were elbow-deep in its filthy engine when we heard the telltale rusted hinge call. Eyes wide, we looked at each other in shock. The car instantly forgotten, we sprinted across the parking lot to a pond. A grackle swooped up to a tree—an encouraging sign, since the two species are often found together. Given that rusty blackbird calls can sometimes be confused with the screech of grackles, even two experienced rusty researchers needed to get a look at the bird to identify it confidently. The garbled, mechanical squeal came once or twice a minute, and it was close. Rusties aren’t loud; we had to have been practically on top of it.
Cursing ourselves for not having brought binoculars, we scanned the area, to no avail. Ready to give up, I turned back, and there it was in the parking lot, sitting inside the cab of a rusted out, banged up Ford F-150. The glossy blackbird perched on the steering wheel, where it happily called out the open windows, and didn’t seem to mind us watching.
For birds in peril it is essential to report observations, so I took note of the other species around (two song sparrows, common grackle, three European starlings), and hastily submitted an eBird checklist. I attached a note: RUBL vocalizing actively. Inside truck, driver’s side. Yes, really.
The Rusty Blackbird in Trouble
I first met Russ Greenberg at an annual International Rusty Blackbird Working Group meeting in 2013. Russ, the founder and long-time director of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, was a powerhouse in the world of bird science. It was he who first noticed the plight of the rusty blackbird in the 1990s, and by 2005, he had brought together dozens of ornithologists to figure out what was going on. They set to work with one critical question: Why was the rusty blackbird disappearing?
The answer, unfortunately, was not simple. In the Northeast, researchers found rusty blackbirds with high levels of mercury in their blood, possibly poisoning them. In other places, rusties were riddled with parasites. Eggs were being eaten by red squirrels and other predators, especially near logging activity. And, of course, forestry operations were cutting away their crucial forest habitat. On the wintering grounds, the continued degradation of swamps and bottomland forest was thought to be taking a toll.
Perhaps most destructive of all, climate change is altering habitat and causing the rusty blackbird’s most important food source—invertebrates in short-lived puddles and swamp edges—to be unavailable when they need it most. Many bird species that predominantly eat insects are in trouble, and climate change is thought to be one of the major causes of their declining populations.
At the working group meeting, we talked about all the possible causes of population decline, turning them over, looking for the smoking gun. There wasn’t one single reason; it’s been a synergy of deadly factors. We couched the damage in language of “loss” and “population decline,” but these were just placeholders for the truth. There were millions of dead and dying rusty blackbirds, and something had to be done.
The members of the working group decided that enough research had been done. It was time for conservation action. Russ Greenberg and I spoke at length, and with his mixture of quiet certainty and light-hearted banter he challenged me to work toward a solution. His love for this uncelebrated little bird sparkled in his eyes. He told me that he would be passing on the mantle of saving the rusty blackbird, and he hoped my generation of scientists was up to the job.
I laughed off his comment. I didn’t know he was ill.
When Russ passed away six months later, the bird world lost a hero. He never got to see the results of his massive efforts toward protecting his beloved species. Since 2014, the Rusty Blackbird Spring Migration Blitz (linked with eBird) has challenged birders to find this elusive species on its way north, helping scientists track its population and movements. More than 4,500 birders took part in each of the first two years, and the final spring blitz happened in 2016. It followed a previous three-year Winter Blitz, and soon, a Fall Migration Blitz will kick off. Birders will be needed in huge numbers to track down this elusive species and report it to eBird. Since the flurry of research and conservation that Russ Greenberg initiated, communities and governments are taking notice. Many are taking action to preserve the wetlands valuable to this bird, and local sightings are essential.
I know where I can still find a few of Russ’s rusties in wetlands near my home, but I’m not sure for how much longer. We can’t conserve this species until we know exactly where rusty blackbirds flock, where they congregate, and where they return to breed year after year. That’s where you come in. We need naturalists and birders across North America to take up their binoculars and report sightings and join the next blitz! Together, we can help save this underappreciated little bird by keeping out a watchful eye.
Alana Westwood is a writer, researcher, and advocate who lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia. See her work at www.alanawestwood.com. Visit www.rustyblackbird.org to find out how you can get involved to help save the rusty blackbird.