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Help solve mystery of disappearing Rusty Blackbirds

Posted: April 18, 2014 - 12:01am

From April 12 through May 31, Alaskans can use their binoculars to help birds—by reporting sightings of Rusty Blackbirds for the Rusty Blackbird Spring Migration Blitz. Researchers across North America are teaming up with citizen scientists to help solve the birds’ mysterious decline.

“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 in a press release. “Since you can report your sightings in the online database eBird, anyone can participate from anywhere in the state.”

The Rusty Blackbird has suffered one of the steepest declines of any bird in North America, 88–98% since 1966. Although the decline of this once common and abundant bird went largely unnoticed until recently, there is historical evidence it has been going on for a century or more.

In spring, you can hear this songbird’s “rusty hinge” song in boreal wetlands in Alaska and Canada. Rusty Blackbirds winter in the southcentral and southeastern United States. Despite the mounting concern for the species, very little was known about its life history or ecology. The only published field study on the species was from 1920. In 2005, the International Rusty Blackbird Working Group (IRBWG), composed of researchers from federal, state, and provincial agencies, universities, and NGOs throughout the US and Canada, formed to develop research efforts toward understanding the species and its mysterious decline. Habitat loss and degradation on the breeding and winter range, climate change, and contaminant exposure are some of the hypotheses for the dropping numbers, but as yet there is no definitive “smoking gun.”

Migration routes, timing, and habitat use during migration remain almost completely unknown.

The Spring Migration Blitz’ vital research—conducted with the participation of thousands of volunteer observers, and coordinated by Alaska Department of Fish and Game and Audubon Alaska—will help answer important basic questions of migratory behavior and will focus future research and conservation efforts for one of North America’s most vulnerable songbirds.

For questions or to participate, visit http://ak.audubon.org/rusty-blackbird-spring-migration-blitz.

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