Citizen science to make a difference for the rusty blackbird

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The rusty blackbird, a close relative to the grackle, is one of North America’s most rapidly declining species.

If you look carefully into the wooded swamps and woodlands of a boreal forest of our northern states, you may catch a glimpse of one, distinct in appearance from other blackbirds with its rusty featheredges and pale yellow eyes. Rusty blackbirds can also be spotted in our region into late summer and fall as they migrate from these breeding grounds towards their wintering areas in the southern U.S.

Once common, populations have dropped 85 to 95 percent in the last 40 years. The cause of the dramatic decline in numbers is unclear. While extensive loss of wooded forests and wetlands to agriculture on their wintering grounds is a likely factor, the principle cause is unknown. Scientists hypothesize that there is a “perfect storm” of factors that also includes:

  • competition for food with more common blackbirds,
  • increased exposure to disease,
  • climate change drying out habitat on their breeding grounds, and
  • high levels of mercury in their bodies, which might affect overall health.

The International Rusty Blackbird Working Group believed that the mystery of the rusty blackbird decline and its large range made it a perfect candidate for a citizen science project. Thus, the Rusty Blackbird Spring Migration Blitz from early March through mid June this year.

“The Migration Blitz will provide new information on migration timing and migratory hot spots that will help us focus conservation efforts for this species where and when they will have the greatest impact.” says Randy Dettmers, one of our biologists studying the bird’s behavior.

Birders from 38 U.S. states, 9 Canadian provinces and 3 Canadian territories tracked these elusive songbirds on their northward migration from the southeastern U.S. up through Canada and into Alaska. Presence or absence information is entered into the Cornell lab of Ornithology eBird site, and scientists will use the data from the Blitz to target future conservation efforts and research initiatives.

During the first full month of the Blitz, birders submitted 6,281 checklists into eBird that included location information of rusty blackbirds–a 41 percent increase from 2013. These data provide much more than the typical snapshot of a single location; it’s like a collective collage that shows a much fuller picture. While the final tallies are still coming in, if the upward trend of submitted information continues, there will be a wealth of knowledge for scientists to sort through.

The Blitz presented a unique opportunity for citizens to both get outside and enjoy nature in the spring, and to actively participate in an effort that sets a new precedent for conservation.

“The Blitz focuses on rusties, but it also demonstrates the power and potential for leveraging citizen science for conservation,” noted Blitz coordinator Judith Scarl of the Vermont Center for Ecostudies.

Even though the rusties have already passed through many of our region’s states, there’s some fascinating birding to be done this month. Check out these tips from eBird!

 

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