Alaskans’ help sought in Rusty Blackbird research

Through May 31, Alaskans can use their binoculars to help birds — by reporting sightings of Rusty Blackbirds for the Rusty Blackbird Spring Migration Blitz. This is the second year of the three-year project. 

Researchers across North America are teaming up with citizen scientists to help solve the mysterious decline of the Rusty Blackbird. Audubon Alaska is coordinating the Alaska effort this year. 

“Whether you’re an experienced birder or just beginning, citizen science projects like the Rusty Blackbird Blitz are a great way to help answer important questions about the birds that flood back to Alaska each spring,” said Beth Peluso of Audubon Alaska. “Since you can report your sightings in the online database called eBird, anyone can participate from anywhere in the state. Starting observations this early in migration season in Alaska will help document first arrivals of Rusty Blackbirds within the state.”

The Rusty Blackbird has suffered one of the steepest declines of any bird in North America, 88-98 percent since 1966. Although the decline of this once common and abundant bird slipped beneath the radar for researchers until recently, there is historical evidence it has been going on for a century or more. 

The Rusty Blackbird is now included in the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Birds of Conservation Concern, and the Audubon Alaska WatchList of declining and vulnerable birds. 

“In 2014 we had great participation from Alaskans,” said Peluso. 

There were 314 checklists, which counted 689 Rusty Blackbirds, submitted from the state. There were counts from two national wildlife refuges, Tetlin and Kanuti, and from 20 communities, from Juneau to the North Slope.

“We’re hoping even more Alaskans grab their binoculars and head out to count Rusties this spring,” said Peluso. “The birds are spreading out onto their nesting territories when they reach Alaska, so most of the observations last year were of small groups of Rusty Blackbirds, not more than ten birds. That means we need lots of eyes out there.”