Help solve the mystery of the Rusty Blackbirds

By Beth Peluso and David F. Tessler

From April 12 through May 31, Alaskans can use their binoculars to help birds, by reporting sightings of Rusty Blackbirds for the Rusty Blackbird Spring Migration Blitz.
Researchers across North America are teaming up with citizen scientists to help solve the mysterious decline of the Rusty Blackbird. The Alaska effort is coordinated by Alaska Department of Fish and Game and Audubon Alaska.
“Whether you’re an experienced birder or just beginning, citizen science projects like the Rusty Blackbird Blitz are a great way to help answer important questions about the birds that flood back to Alaska each spring,” said Beth Peluso of Audubon Alaska. “Since you can report your sightings in the online database eBird, anyone can participate from anywhere in the state.”
The Rusty Blackbird has suffered one of the steepest declines of any bird in North America at 88–98 percent since 1966. Although the decline of this once common and abundant bird went largely unnoticed until recently. There is historical evidence that it has been going on for a century or more. The Rusty Blackbird is now included in the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Birds of Conservation Concern and the Audubon Alaska WatchList of declining and vulnerable birds.
“We’re recruiting an army of birders and bird enthusiasts to participate in this effort to help conserve this disappearing bird,” said Dave Tessler of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. “Starting observations this early in migration season in Alaska will help document first arrivals of Rusty Blackbirds within the state.”
In spring, you can hear this songbird’s “rusty hinge” song in boreal wetlands in Alaska and Canada. Rusty Blackbirds winter in the southcentral and southeastern United States. Despite the mounting concern for the species, very little was known about its life history or ecology. The only published field study on the species was from 1920.
In 2005, the International Rusty Blackbird Working Group formed to develop research efforts toward understanding the species and its mysterious decline. The group is composed of researchers from federal, state, and provincial agencies, universities, and NGOs throughout the U.S. and Canada. Within the last 15 years, scientists have made great strides in understanding the bird’s breeding and wintering ecology, some of the threats it faces, and some of the possible causes for its drastic decline. Habitat loss and degradation on the breeding and winter range, climate change, and contaminant exposure are some of the hypotheses for the dropping numbers. As yet, there is no definitive “smoking gun.”
While scientists are beginning to understand something of the breeding and wintering ecology of the Rusty Blackbird, very little is known about its migration. Migration routes, timing, and habitat use during migration remain almost completely unknown. Are there regular migration routes or hot spots where many individuals congregate? Are there migration stopover areas that are used predictably each year. If so, are these locations protected? What is the range of potential threats the species faces during migration that could be contributing to its decline?
To answer these questions, the working group created The Rusty Blackbird Spring Migration Blitz. The three-year migration blitz is a continental effort in which citizen scientists document the timing and location of the species’ migration routes from wintering grounds to the boreal wetlands in Alaska and Canada. Each participating state, province and territory has a 3-8 week target window during which birders will search for Rusty Blackbirds and report their findings. This vital research — conducted with the participation of thousands of volunteer observers — will help answer important basic questions of migratory behavior and will focus future research and conservation efforts for one of North America’s most vulnerable songbirds.
Recordings of Rusty Blackbirds singing:
Beth Peluso is Communications Manager at Audubon Alaska and David F. Tessler is the Regional Wildlife Biologist, Wildlife Diversity Program for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

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Posted by on Apr 15th, 2014 and filed under Point of View. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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