The Long-term Decline of the Rusty Blackbird

January 1, 1999 by Gregory Gough

black and brown bird sitting on branch

The rusty blackbird's population has declined almost 90 percent since the mid-1800s. The decline has accelerated in recent decades.

While most other North American blackbirds (such as the red-winged, Brewer's, grackles, and cowbirds) have experienced population explosions, enough to warrant blackbird control programs, the rusty blackbird's decline has been largely unnoticed.

Rusty blackbirds nest in the boreal forests of Canada and the far northern United States. They migrate south to overwinter in flooded forests in the southeastern United States.

Systematic surveys since the 1950s (Christmas Bird Count, Breeding Bird Survey, Quebec Checklist Program), all show precipitous declines in rusty blackbird populations that are most severe in the 1970s.

stacked bar graph showing rusty blackbird decline

Historical records in books and checklists indicate the decline stretches back into the 1800s. In the chart to the right, the rusty blackbird is listed as common or abundant on 56 percent of checklists before 1920. Between 1920 and 1950 only 19 percent of checklists list it as such and only 7 percent after 1950.

Conversely, it is not listed at all as uncommon before 1920 in any source. It is listed as uncommon on 43 percent of checklists after 1950.

The reasons for the decline are unknown but may include:

  • Destruction of winter habitat
  • Destruction of breeding habitat
  • Acid rain

This article summarizes the information in this scientific paper:

Greenberg, Russell S. and Droege, S. 1999. On the decline of the Rusty Blackbird (Euphagus carolensis) and the use of ornithological literature to document long-term population trends. Conservation Biology, 13: 553-559.

Download scientific paper