The Rusty Blackbird: 9 Things You Need to Know to Help Them

1. The Rusty Blackbird is one of North America’s most rapidly declining migratory birds. Once abundant, populations have declined an estimated 85-95% in the past 40 years.

Rusty Blackbird
A Rusty Blackbird in Arkansas. Photo: Ron Howard. Used by USFWS with permission.
 2. Scientists aren’t sure why the bird is in chronic decline. Although several hypotheses exist, such as extensive loss and degradation of wooded wetlands and other habitats, any principal cause remains obscure. It is more likely is that a “perfect storm” of several factors is causing the decline.

Graph Charting the Rusty Blackbird Chart
This graph is charting the rusty blackbird decline. Via Greenberg, Russell; Demarest, Dean W.; Matsuoka, Steven M.; Mettke-Hofmann, Claudia; Evers, David; Hamel, Paul B.; Luscier,
Jason; Powell, Luke L.; Shaw, David; Avery, Michael L.; Hobson, Keith A.; Blancher, Peter J.; and Niven, Daniel K., “Chapter nine: Understanding Declines in Rusty Blackbirds” (2011). USDA National Wildlife Research Center – Staff Publications. Paper 1294]
3. The International Rusty Blackbird Working Group is organizing a citizen science monitoring project, the “Rusty Blackbird Spring Migration Blitz” during the months of March and April. They’re asking birders to complete eBird checklists throughout the Rusty Blackbird’s spring migration period. Scientists will then use the data from the Blitz to target future conservation efforts and research initiatives. This Blitz Protocol outlines how to record your observations and submit your data (PDF).

Rusty Blackbird
At Craighead Forest Park in Arkansas. Photo: Ron Howard. Used by USFWS with permission.
4. In spring, male Rusty Blackbirds are glossy black with some rust on the tips of their feathers. Females are charcoal gray with some shades of rust. Though easy to identify with practice, Rusty Blackbirds resemble some other more common species like Brewer’s Blackbirds and Common Grackles.This identification guide can help you prepare (PDF).

Adult female Rusty Blackbird
An adult female Rusty Blackbird. Photo: By Seabrooke Leckie on Flickr.

Common Grackle vs. Rusty Blackbird
Common Grackle vs. Rusty Blackbird from the International Rusty Blackbird Working Group
5. Rusty Blackbirds migrate through 39 eastern, central and midwestern states in the spring, and nearly every state has a dedicated Blitz Coordinator that you can contact for more information.

Rusty Blackbird
Getting some grub. Photo: Ron Howard. Used by USFWS with permission
6. Knowing where the birds aren’t during spring migration is just as important as knowing where they are, so it’s important to submit your observations to eBird, even if you don’t see a Rusty!

Rusty Blackbird
Rusty Blackbird in a Vermont corn field. Photo: By PutneyPics on Flickr.
7. Migrating Rusty Blackbirds like damp habitats. If you have the right habitat in your garden or yard, you may find them there too. Some places you can look for them include: flooded forests, riverbanks, near ponds and lakes, in moist cropfields and pecan orchards, and in ditches. View photos of habitat types.

Wapanooca Lake
Wapanocca Lake at Wapanocca National Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas might be a good place to look for Rusties. Rusties have been reported at the refuge in previous years. Photo: USFWS
8. National Wildlife Refuges are exactly what their name implies for birds: a place of refuge. Go searching for Rusty Blackbirds at local nearby wetland parks or your closest National Wildlife Refuges since they are a great place to go birding. Find a National Wildlife Refuge near you.

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge
The Canal Run Trail at Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia. eBird data reflects that Rusties have been spotted at the refuge in the past. Photo: Steve Brooks.
9. You can make a difference and help to save a species in decline. Now is the time to gather data on these birds… while we can still help their populations recover! Share your experiences or ask questions on the Rusty Blackbird Spring Blitz Facebook Page.

A Rusty Blackbird through the trees. Photo: Copyright Shannon Buckley.
A Rusty Blackbird through the trees.
Jennifer StricklandJennifer Strickland graduated from the University of Georgia in May 2009 with an ABJ in Advertising, minor in Religion and New Media Certificate from the New Media Institute. She currently serves as the Team Lead for Digital Communications and Strategy in the Southeast Region of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Since joining the Service in June 2009, Jennifer has played an integral role in shaping the agency’s digital media policy, strategy, and best practices, and she has taught numerous educational courses at the National Conservation Training Center in West Virginia. Jennifer specializes in listening to her colleagues in order to find common ground, breaking down barriers and silos, and developing integrated communication strategies that deliver concrete results.

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Published: March 6, 2014