I think the first Rusty Blackbirds I saw were at the Teslin Lake Bird Observatory. Usually there is a small flock that forages in a tiny marsh behind the banding site – you can hear their calls from there, and occasionally one comes to perch in a dead aspen nearby. Rusty Blackbirds in autumn are mottled black and brown and can easily be mistaken as Brown-headed Cowbirds at a distant range. You can check out a great PDF document here that compares the Rusty Blackbird to similar species.
In spring the males are jet black with pale yellow eyes, while females are more gray. That they are blackbirds is unmistakable! If you have visited the McIntyre Marsh Bird Observatory on the Fish Lake Road in Whitehorse during spring, you may very well remember seeing them there. They love wooded wetland habitat, such as that can be found around McIntyre Marsh, and several other areas in the Yukon.
Rusty Blackbirds are one of the two common blackbird species found in the Yukon, the other being Red-winged Blackbirds. ‘Rusties’ have become much more uncommon than the Red-wingeds, though not too long ago they were considered a major pest! Unfortunately, these blackbirds are another species in rapid decline to add to the world’s growing list. In North America, they have declined by 95% since the mid-1990s, having “experienced one of the most significant declines ever documented among North American birds in recent times” (International Rusty Blackbird Working Group). It is theorized that the main causes for this crisis is habitat loss in their southern wintering grounds, increased competition for food by other blackbird species, and a high mortality rate from a currently unknown, possibly fairly new disease. Little is actually known about their reasons for decline however, and a massive effort is being put forward to gather more information on their movements, breeding success, and other data.
The International Rusty Blackbird Working Group is a fantastic website to visit if you would like to learn more about these birds, and the conservation efforts being made to help them.
The newest program initiated to monitor Rusty Blackbirds is the Rusty Blackbird Spring Migration Blitz. It kicked off in North America in March; dates for different regions vary. In the Yukon, the Blitz goes from April 15th to May 31st, and is coordinated by Yukon Ornithologist Pam Sinclair. Below is an email Pam sent out at the beginning of the season with information about the Blitz. I highly recommend participation by anyone who is out there birding as this is an important conservation issue! Every Rusty Blackbird you report contributes valuable data to the cause, and sharing sightings had been made incredibly easy.
Hello Rusty Blackbird enthusiasts,
The Rusty Blackbird Spring Migration Blitz starts today in the Yukon! The Blitz challenges birders to seek Rusty Blackbirds throughout this species’ migratory range, from the southeastern U.S. through the Northeast, Midwest, Canada, and Alaska. Target dates for Yukon are 15 April to 31 May and we encourage all birders to participate in the Blitz. To participate, just bird as you normally do and search especially carefully for Rusty Blackbirds- then report your results to eBird (www.ebird.ca) under the “Rusty Blackbird Spring Migration Blitz” survey type. For more information on Blitz objectives, along with Rusty Blackbird identification tips, data collection instructions, and data reporting information, you can find additional resources athttp://rustyblackbird.org/outreach/migration-blitz/. We hope you’ll “get Rusty” with us to help conserve this elusive and vulnerable songbird! Also, follow us on Facebook to hear about Rusty sightings, see Rusty pictures, and get the latest Blitz news:https://www.facebook.com/rustyblackbirdspringblitz
Notes on using eBird:
-if you already have an account with Project FeederWatch or the Great Backyard Bird Count, you can use the same username/password; otherwise you need to register for eBird (i.e. choose a username and password; it’s quick and easy).
-to get the Rusty Blackbird observation form in eBird, click “submit observations”, enter your birding location, and then choose “other” for observation type, and you can choose the Rusty Blackbird form there.
The instruction sheet for data collection is attached in case you want more details, although eBird will walk you through it quite nicely. Also feel free to contact me if you have questions.
Please forward to others you think may be interested.
Thank you for participating in this “citizen science” project!