We have seen some great success stories in the birding world in recent years. The Bald Eagle has made a triumphant recovery from the edge of extinction, the Peregrine Falcon, once gone from the Eastern United States, has now returned, and the Osprey has become almost commonplace where it once had disappeared. Yet today there are many birds much less known that are in serious decline. But like an old birding colleague once told me, “It’s tough getting people excited about a blackbird”.
Although the big raptors like Eagles and falcons seem much more exciting and can more easily motivate people to protect them, the Rusty Blackbird lacks a press agent and gets little fanfare regarding its plight. But that does not lessen the fact that it is in serious trouble and can use our help.
While it may be a challenge to get some people excited about these special little birds, we all should be very concerned about the future of this fast disappearing species. The National Audubon Society lists the Rusty Blackbird on its “Yellow” alert status category on the “Watch list, which means that a species is either declining or rare.
These typically are species of national conservation concern. The Rusty Blackbirds numbers have been on the decline for more than 40 years, from an estimated 13 million in 1965 to 2 million in 2004, a more than 10% a year decrease with no end in sight. And maybe just as frightening is that the reasons for their declines are not understood.
Exactly how to help the Rusty Blackbird is complicated and the experts are not sure where to start. Scientists’ theories on the dramatic decline of Rusty Blackbirds range from acid rain , mercury accumulation on the breeding grounds, and possible changes associated with global warming as their breeding ground in the boreal forests in the north continues to dry up.
To make matters worse, Rusty Blackbirds sometimes can fall victim to lethal “blackbird control” programs which were more prevalent in the 60’s and 70’s but still continue today, a practice that kills any blackbird regardless of species.
Rusty Blackbirds, which can be seen in our area from late fall through April, can be easily confused with Grackles or even Red-winged Blackbirds, so keeping a close eye on the field marks is important for a positive ID. In winter, male Rusty Blackbirds are recognized by their rusty feather edges, pale yellow eyes and buffy eyebrows. Females are gray-brown; they also have rusty feather edges, pale eyes and a bold eyebrow, contrasting with darker feathers right around the eye. Breeding males are dark glossy black.
And as it always does for any species in decline, much comes down to habitat loss. The Rusty Blackbirds wintering habitat is also vanishing and that is why preserving wooded wetlands in our area becomes so important to helping these birds hang on and survive.
Rusty Blackbirds prefer bogs, ponds, swamps, and slow streams. They seek out wet areas to feed at the water’s edge for invertebrates and tiny fish, sometimes even wading in the water as they hunt throughout their migration route. In winter they forage in swamps and wet woodlands and can also visit your backyard bird feeder, as many bird feeder reports come in as the wild food disappears.
Although wooded wetlands are disappearing in our area don’t disregard looking for Rusty Blackbirds in a local patch of woods near your home as they try to survive this very tough winter. In the Meadowlands, Losen Slote Creek in Little Ferry is still a good place to find Rusties but keep an eye out at Mill Creek in Secaucus and DeKorte Park in Lyndhurst as these birds arrive to search for places in our area to over winter.
You can help the Rusty Blackbird by reporting them to E-bird, www.ebird.org, and getting involved with the International Rusty Blackbird working group, http://rustyblackbird.org/