Bye Bye Blackbird

Rusty Blackbird (Euphagus carolinus)
The Rusty Blackbird (Euphagus carolinus) is considered a "vulnerable" species by the whole world, but in Canada it is treated as a pest.

Everyone has heard of the Red-winged Blackbird, and many are familiar with the Brewer’s Blackbird, but how many have seen or even heard of a Rusty Blackbird (Euphagus carolinus)? Not very many I would wager. It’s not surprising because the Rusty is uncommon in the west, and its North American population has declined over 90% in the past 50 years.

The Rusty is the same size as a Brewer’s Blackbird. It is aptly named because of the rusty colouring on its winter plumage. The non-breeding male is black with rusty edges on its feathers. The female is lighter brown with buffy and rusty mottling. Both sexes have yellow eyes. The breeding male is black with an iridescent purple head and chest. It is very similar to the male Brewer’s Blackbird but not as glossy. The breeding female is a dull brown.

The Rusty breeds from the interior of B.C. to the Atlantic coast in the east and to Alaska in the north. During the fall most of the population migrates to the southeast quadrant of the United States. However, it is not uncommon to find the occasional one wintering on Vancouver Island. I would estimate that for every flock of a thousand blackbirds there is one Rusty. There is at least one or two reported in the Victoria region every year, and I bet veteran birders like Art Morgan and Art Martell have seen them in the Comox Valley.

On January 7 I had the pleasure of escorting a deceased Great Horned Owl to the Royal B.C. Museum. The conversation on the way down was quite one-sided as the owl didn’t give a hoot for anything I said. However, I got the last hoot as the trip gave me the opportunity to look for the Rusty that had been reported by Victoria birders at King’s Pond since mid-December. King’s Pond is one of my favorite locations to photograph ducks like Wood Ducks, Northern Shovelers, Lesser Scaups, Ring-neckeds, and Buffleheads. If I couldn’t find the Rusty, I would still enjoy photographing the ducks as well an assortment of winter songbirds like Fox Sparrows, Bewick’s Wrens, Anna’s Hummingbirds, and House Finches. However, Lady Luck was on my side. I didn’t see any blackbirds around the pond, but there were about 12 in the tall trees at the adjacent golf course. I set up my camera and scoped the birds. The first 4 were juvenile Brewer’s, but the 5th was different. I couldn’t see the back, but it had a mottled white and black chest. It had to be the Rusty.

Rusty Blackbird (Euphagus carolinus)
Rusty Blackbird (Euphagus carolinus) feeding on seed at King's Pond, Victoria, British Columbia.

I waited patiently for 20 minutes, and sure enough, the blackbirds flew down to a tree by the pond. I quickly grabbed a bag of seed from my back pack and spread it on the ground. The blackbirds immediately flew down right in front of me. I had no problem picking out the Rusty. Its rusty-edged feathers stood out like a neon light. I was excited because it was the first Rusty I had ever seen.

The Rusty Blackbird situation in Canada is an absolute joke. 70% of the Rusty population breeds in Canada, and it is internationally acknowledged that the population is threatened. Our national organization for conservation, COSEWIC, has declared the Rusty as a “species of concern.” Meanwhile, our Migratory Bird Act does not recognize or protect the Rusty. Instead, the Rusty is lumped together with blackbirds which are considered as pests and may be indiscriminately killed as a nuisance bird. You figure it out. The whole world (IUCN) recognizes the Rusty as a “vulnerable” species, but in Canada it is still treated as a pest! You bet I’m disgusted, but I can’t say I’m surprised. It’s just another case of Canadian “lip-service” instead of a meaningful process to conserve and protect another piece of our disappearing natural world. For starters, how difficult would it be to get it on the migratory bird list where it belongs?

About the Contributor:

Mike Yip is a Vancouver Island photographer who has published two very successful books on birds and has just released his third. More of his bird images can be found at his website Vancouver Island Birds.