March 17, 2017 – A small flock of Rusty Blackbirds work the muddy edge of a pond, moving quickly with a focused intensity as they turn over leaf litter and sticks looking for insects on a cold and cloudy wet March morning in Kankakee county. It is the time of year that these birds, with a conservation status of vulnerable, migrate north to the boreal forests where another breeding and nesting season will begin around the Beaver ponds and bogs in the wet woods of the north.
The Rusty Blackbird, upon close examination, looks very different than most blackbirds with their rusty colored edges that highlight their dark feathers. The female has more of a colorful look with lighter shades of earth-tones and a mixture of that rusty color edging on the feathers and a grayish underside. Like the Common Grackle, the Rusty Blackbird has bright yellow eyes that are rather conspicuous and seem to penetrate ones imagination as you notice a look coming your way.
The Rusty Blackbird is a bird on the edge. It has been a mystery to scientist and ornithologist why there has been such an alarming decline of this species. “North American Breeding Bird Survey and Christmas Bird Count suggest that Rusty Blackbird numbers have plummeted a staggering 85-95% since the mid-1900’s” (Greenberg and Droege, 1999) . Among other possible causes are climatic change and high levels of mercury that have been found in the birds from pollution. Some speculate that the large scale draining of Beaver ponds and clearing of wooded wet lands for agriculture and development throughout its wintering range is a large part of this devastating impact on a bird that relies on a healthy ecosystem and wetland habitat. Many other migratory bird species suffer from this loss of habitat along with local flora and fauna that can vanish from the landscape seemingly in the blink of an eye with such a negative impact on these natural areas.
An organization called International Rusty Blackbird Working Group (IRBWG) was founded in 2005 to aggressively gain understanding by collecting data and monitoring the Rusty Blackbirds on both summer and winter ranges. The goal, through their research, is to lead to conservation methods and programs that help reverse the rapid decline of this species. http://rustyblackbird.org/