Four Rusty Blackbirds

A little further on, a medium-sized songbird moved around among the speckled leaves of a water oak. Slender and graceful in shape, thin pointed bill, brown – several shades of brown – it took me a minute or so to recognize a female Rusty Blackbird. She was quite beautiful, patterned in different tones of warm, rosy brown, fawn, tan and grayish-brown, with a pale buff stripe over the eye, and a dark streak or patch through the yellow eye.

She walked along a large branch of the oak, strolling along it as if it were a boulevard, looking down at the bark as she went. There was a second female – and then two male Rusty Blackbirds flew into the same tree. The males looked all-black, with no hint of winter rust in the plumage that I could see, but they were partially shaded among the leaves. The slender shape, thin pointed bills and startling, pale yellow eyes were clear. The soft chuck calls the birds exchanged were so low and intimate a sound that I almost didn’t notice them.

At one point, one of the females held a very small twig in her beak with a couple of small leaves as she strolled along a branch – maybe a bug or spider on the twig? I don’t know. After about four or five minutes, they all flew. There may have been other Rusty Blackbirds around – but these four were the only ones I saw, and they did not seem to be part of a larger flock. There was a flock of Common Grackles and maybe other blackbirds in a different part of the neighborhood, but far enough away so that I couldn’t even hear their clamor as I was watching these.

Populations of Rusty Blackbirds have declined dramatically in the past three or four decades. Some estimates of population decreases are as high as 99 percent. The reasons for their decline are not fully understood, though loss of habitat is one likely factor. Because they have become so much less common, it’s especially interesting to see and watch them.

Seeing both the Blue-headed Vireo and the Rusty Blackbirds was very unexpected – with the Red-shouldered Hawk as a bonus – especially because it continues to seem there are dramatically fewer birds in our neighborhood this fall season. Although most of our usual winter resident birds have returned, there just don’t seem to be as many of them, at least not so far.

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