Rusty Blackbird

Later in the morning when I went out to walk, the sky was a soft blue, with small scraps of white clouds scattered here and there – and for the most part, this beautiful sky was empty of birds, though a few American Crows flew past now and then. Over the course of an hour or more, I saw one Turkey Vulture and one Black Vulture soaring. The Black Vulture’s white wing patches gleamed like silver in the sunlight. One Red-tailed Hawk soared in the distance, barely close enough to see its orange-red tail as it turned.

Birds in general seemed widely scattered and few in number, as they have for many weeks here now – though by the end of an hour I’d counted 28 species. American Robins were the most numerous, with a great number scattered all through the neighborhood. I think one reason there seem to be few birds here this winter is that we haven’t often seen the large mixed flocks of blackbirds that in previous years have been common. This winter I’ve only found a small flock now and then, and today there were no blackbird flocks at all, no Grackles or Red-winged Blackbirds’ calls. And so it seemed quiet.

Toward the end of my walk, I noticed a single, solitary black bird foraging with several American Robins in a large grassy yard. I could see them through gaps in a line of old cedars. Though it raised its head as I began to move cautiously closer, it wasn’t skittish and didn’t fly, and I was able to get close enough for a beautiful view of an all-black bird with a slender bill just slightly down-curved, and bright yellow eyes – a Rusty Blackbird. It was standing in a spread of thick green grass and lots of tiny bluets.

It appeared to be black all over, not glossy, with a barely perceptible shadow of rippled rusty color over the back and shoulders. It stood among the bluets and grass with its head up and the bill pointed slightly up, looking around nervously in one direction and then another. After several minutes, it put its head back down and began to walk and forage again, pecking in the grass and tossing up pieces of leaf or mulch debris. When finally a car drove past, it flew into the low limbs of a cedar tree, where it was mostly hidden from view.

Rusty Blackbirds are among the most rapidly declining bird species. Their population numbers have fallen dramatically, between 85 and 98 percent in the past 40 years. The reasons for this decline are not known for sure, though habitat loss is one likely cause. They live in wooded swamps, spend the breeding season in northern boreal forests, and winter in the eastern U.S.

In the past few years, we’ve been very lucky to have small flocks of Rusty Blackbirds as regular winter visitors to our neighborhood, usually moving in mixed flocks with other blackbirds like Common Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds, but also seen alone or in small groups of Rusty Blackbirds only. This winter is the second year in which these flocks have become less common and much smaller here.

All of this makes seeing such a beautiful, clear view of a Rusty Blackbird feel particularly lucky and rare.

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