GRAND FORKS, N.D. — While I was going after the mail the other day, a flock of blackbirds settled into the shelterbelt. Most of them were red wings, as far as I could tell, although I didn’t examine every individual bird.
It’s a coincidence, of course, but with connections.
Red-winged and rusty blackbirds are relatives, two of more than 100 species of blackbirds in the Western Hemisphere.
Attention naturally turns to blackbirds in October. Red wings are abundant now. They form immense flocks before moving south for the winter. They are nesting birds across the Great Plains, favoring marshes and feeding in open fields. Red wings may be the most abundant birds of any species in North Dakota.
Not so the rusty blackbird. This is a species of the boreal forest. This includes much of Canada, including Manitoba and northwestern Ontario, and it takes in a bit of northeast Minnesota. But it leaves out North Dakota.
In our area, the rusty blackbird is a migrant, occurring in both spring and fall. It is much more often seen – or at least identified – in the fall. Then it has a distinctive plumage, though in size, shape and demeanor it is still a blackbird.
A rusty blackbird in fall lives up to its name. Although it remains a kind of sooty gray overall, it is marked with golden or rust-colored patches. The head pattern is quite distinct, with a darker crown and yellow swath across the face.
In spring, rusty blackbirds are black, though often with some rust on the feathers.
The eye is striking. At all times it is a vivid yellow.
Unlike the red-winged blackbird, the rusty blackbird is rare. The headline on the “Bird Watcher’s Digest” report is “A species on the brink.”
It’s not clear why this should be so. It once was regarded as abundant; as late as the 1990s, North Dakota checklists ranked it as a common migrant in spring and fall.
Here is how the magazine described the rusty blackbird’s current situation: “Rarely seen and hardly noticed, the rusty blackbird has begun to slip away.” The writer, Alana Westwood, is reporting from Nova Scotia, well within the rusty blackbird’s historic nesting range. It takes “Herculean effort” to find one or two of the birds, she wrote.
“Herculean” is not a word to apply to my own efforts to find rusty blackbirds. Mostly I have simply encountered them.
As migrants in our area, they are opportunists, seeking food and shelter where they can. I’ve seen rusty blackbirds foraging in feedlots and suburban backyards and huddling against steel buildings during wind storms.
I’ve never seen more than three or four at one time. I’ve never picked one out of a big flock of blackbirds, though that doesn’t mean they aren’t there.
All the rusty blackbirds that I’ve seen – for sure – have been in the fall.
Once or twice in springtime, I’ve come close to convincing myself that I’ve seen a rusty blackbird. It’s hard to be sure, because a rusty blackbird in spring is very, very similar to a much more common species, Brewer’s blackbird. I’ve added the second very for emphasis.
I remain hopeful, and I keep working at spring sightings. A spring sighting would be especially satisfying because it would point toward possible breeding and reproduction.
Fall sightings are proof of success in those matters, but fall birds face big challenges. For rusty blackbirds, these appear to include diminishing habitat on their winter range in the southeastern United States. Some observers have suggested pollution in boreal forests, perhaps from acid rainfall.
For the moment, red-winged blackbirds don’t appear threatened in any way. Even the technology employed to keep them away from standing crops, especially sunflowers, doesn’t seem to deter them, and every remaining wetland has its pair, or more, of nesting red-winged blackbirds.
Still, a close look at a red-winged blackbird in the fall always brings the rusty blackbird to mind. In fall, the red-winged blackbird is much less conspicuous than it is in summer. Its bright red epaulets fade, and a hint of rust creeps into the feathers on its back.
So as I look through flocks of red-winged blackbirds, now abundant, I remember the rusty blackbird, now slipping away, and I wonder just how close the connection between these relatives might be.