Elusive blackbird species focus of Michigan contest

Charles E. Ramirez
The Detroit News

A $400 pair of binoculars is a good reason to keep your eye on the birdie — or at least a particular blackbird.

And the snazzy pair of field glasses goes home to whoever wins a contest to find the most rusty blackbirds over the next couple of months.

Michigan Audubon organized "The 2015 Rusty Blackbird Spring Migration Blitz," which started March 1. Anyone can participate.

"It's really the first time we've held a contest (focused) on rusty blackbirds," said Rachelle Roake, conservation science coordinator of Michigan Audubon, a conservation nonprofit based in Lansing. "We're trying to raise awareness about the rusty blackbird and encourage birders to get out there and look for new habitats they might be using."

Rusty blackbirds, also known as "Rusties," are medium-sized blackbirds found across North America.

They're about the size of a robin, Roake said, and they get their name from the rusty, brown-colored edges on their feathers in fall and early winter. In spring and summer, males' feathers are glossy black and females are silvery, slate gray. Both have bright yellow eyes.

They also have a distinct call, which sounds like a squeaky gate hinge, Roake said.

"We don't have a lot of data on them because they're hard to identify," she said.

The blackbirds most frequently spotted around Metro Detroit are typically one of the Rusties' cousins, the red-winged blackbird, Roake said. Unlike Rusties, red-wing blackbirds are more aggressive and have adapted well to living around humans.

Rusties also are hard to find since their typical habitats are flooded forests and wetlands. The birds breed in remote forest areas in Canada and the northern United States. They spend winters in the wetlands of the southeastern U.S.

Michigan is an important migratory stopover during their spring trip to Canada, but scientists have yet to find specific areas that can be protected to ensure the species has safe and productive refueling stations, Roake said.

The contest is designed to get a better understanding of where Rusties stop in Michigan. To win the contest, entrants must submit findings, or checklists, on the eBird.org web site. The online database requires users to register. It's based on the honor system and the grand prize goes to the birder who submits the most checklists for the Rusty Blackbirds, Roake said.

The winner will be announced at Michigan Audubon's Tawas Point Birding Festival on May 14-17 in East Tawas.

Rusties are known to make stops at some of the Huron-Clinton Metroparks in Metro Detroit, said Jennifer Hollenbeck, interpretive services manager for the park authority.

She said the bird has been spotted at Lake St. Clair Metropark in Harrison Township, Stony Creek Metropark in Shelby Township, Kensington Metropark in Milford and Indian Springs Metropark in White Lake.

Scientists said the Rusty used to be fairly common, but its population is falling rapidly. There aren't any hard figures on the bird's population, but experts estimate their numbers have declined 85 percent to 95 percent since the mid-1990s.

Roake said loss of habitat is driving the species' decline. Climate change as well as the logging and oil industries are chipping away the bird's breeding grounds.

On top of that, the forested wetlands where they winter are disappearing. Rusties survive on aquatic invertebrates — crawfish, insects, spiders, snails — in the wetland's shallow water. But 80 percent of those wetlands have vanished, taking the blackbird's food source along with them.

"It's the biggest threat," she said. "There's no place for them to go."

Roake said it's important to stop the blackbird's decline because like every animal, it has an ecological niche.

"Picking off species one by one is not a road we want to go down," she said. "We should work to conserve a species while it's still around, instead of waiting for it to become so rare that we have to fight to create habitats or save them from the brink."

Jim Bull, an avid bird-watcher, or birder, and president of the 6,000-member Detroit Audubon Society, said he likes the idea of the contest.

"Anything that can generate more interest in birding is great," said the 61-year-old from Lincoln Park. "If this gets more people out there looking for rusty blackbirds, that's a great thing."


Since 1978, Bull participates in the yearly census of the Kirtland's warbler. He said he's seen Rusties on expeditions for the census.

"(Rusties are) not very numerous and can be easily overlooked if you're not familiar with them," he said. "They're cool birds."


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The 2015 Rusty Blackbird Spring Migration Blitz

For contest information or to submit rusty blackbird observations log on to www.rustyblackbird.org/outreach/migration-blitz/.

Source: Michigan Audubon