Birders, Citizen Scientists Sought To Participate In Rusty Blackbird Spring Migration

Wednesday, March 5, 2014 - by Elsie Davis

The Rusty Blackbird is one of North America’s most rapidly declining migratory bird species.  Once a common bird in North America, populations have declined an estimated 85 to 95 percent over a 40-year period. This marks one of the most significant declines documented for a bird species anywhere in North America.

“Widespread and precipitous declines in Rusty Blackbird populations have brought the species much-needed attention in conservation circles over the last two decades, but the exact reasons for its declines remain mysterious, as does the identification of viable strategies for effectively reversing them,” said Dean Demarest, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who has worked on projects addressing Rusty Blackbird conservation for over 10 years. “The trick with Rusties is to gain enough of an understanding regarding the principal causes behind their disappearance so that we can act proactively to address them.”

Proactive measures are underway. This spring, the International Rusty Blackbird Working Group is organizing a 2014 Spring Migration Blitz.  Dr. Judith Scarl, Vermont Center for Ecostudies, serves as the International Coordinator of the Spring Migration Blitz.

“Rusty Blackbird migration remains a big mystery,” said Dr. Scarl. “Without an understanding of stopover locations, migratory timing, or migratory hotspots, we cannot even begin to design conservation strategies to protect this species during one of the critical periods in its annual cycle.”

The premise of the Blitz is simple: You can help scientists gather much-needed data during the Rusty Blackbird’s migration period by birding during the target weeks for your state and submitting your findings to eBird, even if you don’t see a Rusty. It’s just as important to better understand where Rusty Blackbirds occur as it is to know the locations where they have not been found.   

National wildlife refuges are an excellent place to get started. During migration, Rusties are often associated with shallow water, such as flooded forests and the edges of a creek or pond. They also utilize pecan orchards and crop fields. Refuges across the southeast such as Wappanocca in Arkansas, Okefenokee in Georgia, Eufaula in Alabama, and Black Bayou Lake in Louisiana are among many Refuges listed in eBird as locations where birders have observed Rusty Blackbirds.

By submitting birding data collected at national wildlife refuges into eBird, birders provide valuable information to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists for use in a variety of interests and applications.

“There are over 100,000,000 bird observations recorded in eBird, providing a wealth of data on bird distribution throughout the world,” said Steve Holzman, a biologist in the Service’s Inventory and Monitoring Program. “Tapping into this expansive database from very competent citizen scientists allows us to better understand which birds use our refuges, and how important these refuges are to their survival, much better than we ever could on our own.”

The Spring Migration Blitz presents 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,” said Dr. Scarl. “How often do you have birders from 38 states, nine Canadian provinces, and three Canadian territories working together to gather information that can help inform the conservation of a single species?"

For bird and habitat identification guides, as well as other helpful materials, visit

For more additional tips on how to participate in the Spring Blitz in your state, visit:

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