Birding Notes

Reflections on birds and other wildlife on the edge of a southern woodland

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Rusty Blackbirds

This afternoon around 3:00, several Rusty Blackbirds were among a small flock of other blackbirds (maybe 100 at most), including Common Grackles and Red-winged, foraging in yards in our neighborhood. The day was damp and gray and chilly, and a light rain had just begun to fall.

The “rusty” pattern on the plumage of the male Rusty Blackbirds looked bright and vivid, almost like copper.

I think this was a small part of a larger mixed flock of Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds (as many as four or five hundred at a time on a couple of days) that I’ve seen several times recently, but this is the first time this season I’ve been able to find Rusty Blackbirds among them. I’ve been watching for them because the past two years we’ve had a number of Rusties that stayed around through the winter season, and it was fun to be able to spend some time watching them and become more familiar with them. They’re considerably less noisy and smaller than Common Grackles, and usually seem to sort of stick together within a larger mixed flock.

Rusty Blackbirds are “perhaps the least well known of North America’s blackbirds,” according to the species account in Birds of North America.* There are some indications that their populations are declining, but because they are rather inconspicuous and have not been widely studied, there’s much that remains to be learned about them.

Discovering Rusty Blackbirds has been another lesson for me in not taking common things for granted. When I saw a flock of blackbirds in the past, I used to just see “blackbirds.” The first time I saw the Rusties two years ago, it was like suddenly seeing a hidden image in a complex picture – they were there all along, but I hadn’t seen them because I just hadn’t looked. It seems to be a lesson I have to learn over and over again – to really look at what’s here right in front of me.

*Avery, Michael L. 1995. Rusty Blackbird (Euphagus carolinus), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.


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