With a northerly breeding range and a winter range across moist woods of the eastern U.S., the Rusty Blackbird is migratory, and travels in groups during the daytime. Rusty Blackbirds fly at about twenty miles per hour, and forage on the ground or in shallow water.
Rusty Blackbirds nest north of the usual range of the Brown-headed Cowbird, but there are a few records of nest parasitism. The oldest known Rusty Blackbird was over eight years old. Research and conservation studies of Rusty Blackbirds are on the increase as there is concern over its declining population.
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Description of the Rusty Blackbird
The Rusty Blackbird is sexually dimorphic, though both sexes have a typical blackbird shape, a somewhat long and pointed bill, and pale eyes.
Breeding males are all black with a purplish sheen to the head.
Breeding females are dull brownish above and below.
Seasonal change in appearance
Fall adult males lack the glossy sheen and resemble females, but are darker and more heavily marked with rusty tones. Fall females are very rusty overall, with a thin, dark patch through the eye and a bold, buffy supercilium.
Juveniles resemble winter adults.
Rusty Blackbirds inhabit muskegs and wooded swamps, though in migration and winter they can be found in trees near water or in feedlots.
Rusty Blackbirds eat insects and seeds.
Rusty Blackbirds forage on the ground or in shallow water.
Rusty Blackbirds breed from Alaska east to the Atlantic Coast of Canada. They winter across a large portion of the eastern U.S. The population has declined very significantly in recent years.
Rusty Blackbirds breed farther north than other blackbirds.
Like most blackbirds, Brewer’s Blackbirds sometimes associate with other blackbird species outside of the breeding season.
The song consists of a high, squeaky whistle, sometimes likened to the sound of a rusty hinge. A “chek” call is given as well.
- Brewer’s Blackbirds have slightly thicker bills. Grackles have longer tails.
The Rusty Blackbird’s nest is a cup of twigs, grass, and weeds and is lined with finer materials. It is placed in a coniferous tree or in a shrub over water.
Number: Usually lay 4-5 eggs.
Color: Bluish-green with darker markings.
Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 14 days, and fledge at about 11-14 days, though remaining dependent on the adults for some time.
Bent Life History of the Rusty Blackbird
Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.
Bent Life History for the Rusty Blackbird – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
now Rusty Blackbird
ETJPHAGUS CAROLINUS CAROLINUS (Muller)
To most of the residents of the United States the rusty blackbird is known only as an abundant spring and fall migrant, for its breeding grounds are north of our border, though a few breed in northern New England and the species winters abundantly in the Southern States. Its breeding range extends northward to the limits of trees in northern Alaska and Canada and southward to the central portions of British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, and Ontario; it extends across our northern border into northern Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and, New York. Frederick C. Lincoln (1935) says that “in the Stikine River Valley of northern British Columbia and southwestern Alaska” the rusty blackbird is one of several eastern species that have extended their breeding ranges to within “20 to 100 miles of the Pacific Ocean.
On its breeding grounds, the rusty blackbird seems to show a decided preference for the vicinity of water, the shores of lakes, ponds or streams, or the more or less inaccessible bogs or swamps. Bendire (1895) says:
The Rusty Grackle is much more of a forest-loving species than the other Blackbirds, and during the breeding season it appears to be far less gregarious. Its favorite haunts in the Adirondacks are the swampy and heavily wooded shores of the many little mountain lakes and ponds found everywhere in this region, and here it spends the season of reproduction in comparative solitude. I can state from personal experience that the oologist who desires to study this species on its breeding grounds must make up his mind to endure all sorts of discomforts; millions of black flies, gnats, and mosquitoes make life a burden during his stay, while the bogs and swamps through which one is compelled to flounder in search of the nest render walking anything but pleasant.
Spring: Large flocks of rusty blackbirds begin moving northward from their winter range in the Southern States in March, passing through the Northern States mainly in April, and reaching the northern limits of their breeding range in May. Their passage is rather rapid and the route is broadly northward along the Atlantic and Mississippi flyways, though they are sometimes seen in the Great Plains region and there is a northwestward trend in Canada toward Alaska. Some variations from the above very general statement should be noted. Milton B. Trautman (1940) says of the migration at Buckeye Lake, Ohio: “The spring vanguard of the Rusty Blackbird made its first appearance between February 18 and March 2. Its numbers were small until almost mid-March. Then a few days later a sharp increase in numbers took place, and until approximately April 12, from 50 to 3,000 individuals could be recorded daily. There was generally a decrease in numbers shortly after mid-April, and from then until May 5 only 5 to 50 individuals were observed in a day, and never more than 100 were seen. The last transients were recorded between May 8 and 22.”
Referring to Manitoba, Seton (1891) writes: “April 15, 1882: Snow still deep everywhere, but melting fast. In the poplars along the slough side to-day was a large flock of Rusty Grackles.* * *
“April 21: The thousands of Grackles have been increased to tens of thousands. They blacken the fields and cloud the airs The bare trees on which they alight are foliated by them. Their incessant jingling songs drown the music of the Meadow Larks and produce a dreamy, far-away effect, as of myriads of distant sleigh bells. Mixed with the flocks of Rusty Grackles now arc a few Red-winged Blackbirds.”
The spring migration of the rusty blackbirds is spectacular, noisy, and ubiquitous; the birds may be seen in enormous numbers almost anywhere, following the plowman as he cultivates his land, blackening the stubble or grain fields, filling the air in passing clouds, or gathering to sing in the leafless treetops along the roadsides or in the swampy woods and roosting at night in the swamps or sloughs. As Beal (1900) puts it: “One of the most familiar sights to the New England schoolboy, and one that assures him that spring is really at hand, is a tree full of blackbirds, all facing the same way and each one singing at the top of its voice. These are rusty blackbirds, or rusty grackles, which, in their spring journey to the north, have a way of beguiling the tedium of their long flight by stopping and giving free concerts. Every farmhouse by the wayside will have its visitors, and every boy who hears them is eager to tell his mates that he has seen the first flock of blackbirds.”
In eastern Massachusetts, according to William Brewster (1906): “The Rusty Blackbird comes to us from the south in early spring about the time when Pickering’s hyla begins peeping. The tinkling notes of the Blackbird are, indeed, ever associated in my mind with the bell-like call of the hyla, for at this season the two sounds are usually heard together. Being pitched on nearly the same key, it is not always easy to discriminate them, especially when a score of Blackbirds and several hundred hylas are exercising their vocal organs at once.~~ Rev. J. H. Langille (1884) gives the following impression of the spring flight:
On the first day of May, 1880, as I stood on an iron bridge crossing a sluggish stream of Tonawanda Swamp, I saw the Rusty Grakles (Scolecophagus ferrugineus) constantly trooping by in immense numbers. They were moving in a very leisurely manner, immense detachments constantly alighting. The large tract of low land, covered with the alder, the willow and the osier, seemed alive with them. The sombre wave, thus constantly rolling on, must have carried hundreds of thousands over this highway in a day. Occasionally they would alight to feed in the low, wet fields in the vicinity, making the earth black with their numbers. * * * On being alarmed, either in the fields or in the bushes, these Grakles would rise in a dense, black cloud, and with a rumbling sound like that of distant thunder .
Courtship: The following brief note by Dr. Charles W. Townsend (1920) is all that I can find on this subject: “The courtship of this bird, if such it may be called, is produced with apparently great effort, wide open bill and spread tail, resulting in a series of squeaking notes suggestive of an unoiled windmill: wat-chee e. At times a sweet lower note, often double, is heard.”
J. A. Munro (1947) observed that two males in the top of a tree “performed a simple display that consisted of stretching one wing downward to its full extent, then whistling a single note.”
Nesting: Frederic H. Kennard (1920) spent portions of five seasons in northern Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, bunting for nests of the rusty blackbird, and his excellent account of his experiences throws more light on the home life of this species than can be found elsewhere. The first two trips were made too early in the season, the last ten days in May; most of the nests held young birds, though one contained a set of five eggs that was too heavily incubated to be saved; on subsequent seasons he was more successful. He makes the following general statement about the nesting sites: “For sites they seem more apt to choose evergreens, preferably thick clumps of second growth spruce and balsam, though I have found them in dead trees or in clumps of deciduous bushes, button-bush and sweet gale, along the shores of some stream.”
He says that they did not breed in colonies, the nearest nests he ever found being “a quarter of a mile apart.” His lowest nest “was built about 2 feet up in a little, low black spruce, one of a clump on a floating island, in a swamp caused by raising the waters of a large lake on which it was situated.” His highest nest was “about 20 feet up, in a tall, unhealthy looking spruce. It was placed in one of those thick bunches of evergreen twigs that sometimes grow close to the trunk of a spruce, and could not be seen from the ground.” All the other nests were much less than 10 feet above the ground or water. One nest was in a dead spruce top that had floated down the stream in the spring floods and become stranded near its mouth. It was only a foot above the surface of the water, in a tangle of usnea moss, and so well hidden that C~we bad paddled by it in our canoe time after time without ever suspecting its presence.” Another nest was beside a “brook, in a tangled growth of sweet gale overhanging a ditch, and about two feet above the water.” Still another was “about 10 feet back from the edge of the stream, in a thick growth of button-bushes. The nest was placed in a crotch, a couple of feet above the water, just as a Red-wing’s would have been.” He shows a photograph of a nest, “built in the top of an old stump, standing in the water, out from the shore of a lake.”
To illustrate the persistency of these birds in attempting to raise a brood, he took a set of eggs from a nest on May 24; 12 days later, on June 5, he took the eggs from their second nest; the birds built their third nest and laid a set of four eggs within 11 days; he took these eggs, also, but the persevering birds built a fourth nest and were allowed to raise a brood of three young .
Near Red Deer, Alberta, W. E. Saunders (1920) found several nests “in the typical location, over water. * * * Exceptions doubtless occur, but I have never found nests of the Rusty other than over water, and Brewer’s never very near water.”
Kennard (1920) gives the following excellent description of the nest:
In construction, those that I have seen, have all been particularly well built, rather bulky structures, and practically alike. A foundation is usually laid of usnea moss, sometimes in thick masses, and upon this they build their outside frame-work of twigs, usnes, lichens and occasionally a few dried grasses. In one of the nests in my collection the twigs used were mostly dead hackmetack, in another spruce, while in the remainder, twigs from deciduous trees predominated. This frame-work usually becomes thicker and more substantial as it progresses upward.
Within this outside frame they construct a well modeled hollow bowl, between five and one-half and six centimeters in depth, and between eight and one-half and nine and one-half centimeters inside diameter. This bowl, which seems to the casual observer to he made of mud, is in reality made of ‘duff,’ the rotting vegetable matter with which the ground of this region is covered, and which when dried becomes nearly as hard and stiff as paper mache; and shows their interesting adaptability to conditions, as real mud must at this season he hard to find. A cross-section of the nest shows the bowl to be of varying thickness, but averaging between five and ten millimetres, and so pressed into its surrounding frame as to become, when it hardens, a part of it.
After the bowl has been carefully modeled and smoothed off on the inside, it is lined with fine, long green leaves of grasses that grow in the swamps thereabouts, and is finally topped off with dried grasses and fibres of various sorts, and a few thin, bendable twigs. In recently constructed nests I have found the green lining to be absolutely constant, although as incubation progresses, these grasses, of course, gradually turn brown. The diameter of the nest when finished, just across the outside of the bowl, averages about twelve centimetres, while the diameter of the entire structure, except for a few outreaching twigs, varies from fourteen to twenty centimetres. The usual measurements from foundation to top of bowl are from eight and one-half to nine centimetres.
Bendire (1895) says that a nest taken in Herkimer County, N. Y., “measures 7 inches in outer diameter by 5% inches in depth; the inner cup is 3% inches wide by 2% inches deep. One of these nests will last for several seasons, but a fresh one is usually built every year. These birds are very much attached to their summer homes, returning to them from year to year, and rarely more than two or three pairs nest in one locality; in fact, they are as often found singly.”
Eggs: The set consists of four or five eggs, and one is deposited each day. Bendire (1895) describes them very well, as follows: “The eggs of the Rusty Blackbird are mostly ovate in shape. The shell is strong, finely granulated, and slightly glossy. The ground color is a light bluish green, which fades somewhat with age; this is blotched and spotted more or less profusely, and generally heaviest about the larger end of the egg, with different shades of chocolate and chestnut brown and the lighter shades of ecru, drab, and pale gray. The peculiar scrawls so often met with among the eggs of the Blackbirds are rarely seen on these eggs, which are readily distinguishable from those of the other species.”
In a series of 50 sets, reported to me by A. D. Henderson, of Belvedere, Alberta, there are 25 sets of five eggs and 3 sets of six.
The measurements of 50 eggs average 25.8 by 18.6 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 29.8 by 20.0, 26.7 by 20.1, 23.1 by 17.8, and 25.9 by 16.3 millimeters.
Incubation: AII the information that we have points to an incubation period of about 14 days, performed by the female alone. Kennard (1920) says:
The female usually starts incubation with the laying of the first egg, particularly in early spring, when the weather is cold, and sits pretty close, flying off only upon one’s near approach. * * * During incubation the male is very assiduous in his attentions to the female, feeding her frequently, and seldom flies far from the nesting locality. The female at this season is usually seldom in evidence, but by watching the male, one can soon determine by his actions the approximate locality of the nest. He has the very conspicuous habit of sitting on the top of some tall dead stub or tree, often with a nice fat grub in his bill and calling to the female. This call is a two-syllabled “conk-es,” very similar to the three-syllabled “conk-a-ree” of the Redwing, but clearer and more musical, and usually distinguishable from the notes of the other blackbirds.
If disturbed by the proximity of watchers, he may delay for a while, uttering an occasional “chip” of alarm, but sooner or later he will fly close to the nest or to the top of some nearby stub, when the female will fly out to him, and with low “chucks” and much fluttering of wings, partake of the delicious morsel he has brought her.
Young: Kennard (1920) watched a brood of young from the time they hatched until they left the nest; of this brood he writes:
“The young, when hatched, are covered with a long, thin, fuscous natal down; and fed by both parents, at frequent intervals, develop rapidly, as such young birds do. The nest is kept clean, and I saw the female frequently drop a white fecal sac in the nearby brook, as she flew away from feeding her charges. By the fifth day, the primary quills and other wing feathers are well under way, while the growths along the remaining feather tracts are starting; and slight slits begin to show between their eyelids. By the tenth day the young are well covered with feathers, through which some of their natal down still protrudes, and their eyes are nearly but not quite wide open.
A tragedy occurred to the only brood I was able to watch, for on the tenth day after hatching, one of the young was found in the water, about ten feet from the nest, dead and partially eaten. Whether he deliberately climbed from the nest, and later fell into the water, or was taken by some animal, will never be known, but the next day the three remaining young all climbed out into the adjoining bushes, it seemed to me, ahead of schedule time, for their eyes were hardly open, and they were still unable to fly.
They remained in the immediate vicinity of the nest for the next two days, climbing and hopping from bush to bush, with both parents in close attendance, till on the thirteenth day, they had learned the use of their wings; and in the evening the last one was seen to fly across the stream, followed by its mother, and to disappear in the swamp beyond.
Plumages: As mentioned above, the young when first hatched are covered with long, thin, fuscous down. ‘The sexes are alike in the juvenal plumage, which Dwight (1900) describes as follows: “Whole plumage slate-color washed on back and throat with sepia-brown.
Tail darker with greenish reflections. Tertials and wing coverts edged with Mar’s-brown.”
A complete postjuvenal molt occurs during the latter half of summer; this produces a first winter plumage, in which the sexes become distinguishable, and which is not very different from that of the adults in the fall. Dwight describes the first winter plumage of the young male as “everywhere lustrous greenish black more or less veiled above with Mar’s-brown, below with wood-brown.” The illustrations of these plumages in Bird-Lore, vol. 23, No. 6, opposite p. 281, seem to me to be much too highly colored .
Ridgway (1902) adds, in a footnote, the following comment: “The extent of this rusty and buffy coloring varies exceedingly in different individuals, probably according to age. In some (doubtless younger birds) the rusty is nearly uniform on the pileum and hindneck, and forms very broad tips to the scapulars and interscapulars, while the cinnamon-buffy forms a continuous broad superciliary stripe and is nearly uniform over the malar region, chin and throat. Other winter males (probably very old individuals) have scarcely a trace of this rusty and buffy coloring, being quite like summer specimens, except that the plumage is more highly glossed.”
There is apparently no prenuptial molt in either young or adult birds, the spring plumage being acquired by the complete, or nearly complete, wearing away of the rusty edgings. Adults have a complete postnuptial molt in summer, beginning the middle of July.
Dwight (1900) says that the first winter plumage of the female “is very like the juvenal but with much Mar’s-brown above chiefly on the head and strongly washed below with wood-brown, these colors edging slaty feathers; the lores and auriculars are dull black in contrast. The first nuptial plumage is acquired by wear and later plumages vary little from the first winter.”
Food: Beal (1900) analyzed the contents of 132 stomachs of the rusty blackbird, taken every month in the year except June and July, and reports:
The stomachs contained a larger proportion of animal matter (53 percent) than those of any other species of American blackbirds except the bobolink. This is the more remarkable in view of the fact that none were taken in the two breeding months of June and July, when in all probability the food consists almost exclusively of animal matter. While the birds are decidedly terrestrial in their feeding habits, they do not eat many predaceous ground beetles (Carabidae), the total consumption of these insects amounting to only 1.7 percent of the whole food. Scarabaeids, the May-beetle family, form 2 percent, and in April 11.7 percent. Various other families of beetles aggregate 10.1 percent, largely aquatic beetles and their larvae, which, so far as known, do not have any great economic importance. A few of the destructive snout~-beetles (Rhynchophora) are also included, as well as some chrysomelids and others.
Caterpillars constitute 2.5 percent and do not form any very striking percentage at any time, except, perhaps, in May, when they amount to 11.7 percent. Grasshoppers nearly equal beetles in the extent to which they are eaten, and exceed every other order of insects, although none appeared in the stomachs taken in January, March, May, and December, and in February but a trace. In August, as usual, they reach the maximum, 44.3 percent, only a trifle higher, however, than the October record. The average for the year is 12 percent. Various orders of insects, such as ants, a few bugs, and also a few flies, with such aquatic species as dragon-flies, caddice-flies, and ephemerids were eaten in all the months except January, in which only one stomach was taken. They aggregate 13.7 percent of the whole food, but owing to the number of forms no one amounts to a noteworthy percentage, and many of them are of little economic importance. Spiders and myriapods (thousand-legs) are eaten to the extent of 4 percent and amount to 23 percent in August. Other small animals, such as crustaceans, snails, salamanders, and small fish, were found in the stomachs for nearly every month, and amount to 7 percent of the food of the year, but none of them are important from an economic point of view.
The vegetable food consists of grain, 24.4 percent, weed seed, 6 percent, and miscellaneous substances such as a small amount of fruit and a little mast, 16.6 percent of the food of the year. Of grain, corn seems to be the favorite, amounting to 17.6 percent of the year’s food and averaging as much as 26.5 percent in 15 stomachs collected in November. “Wheat and oats collectively amount to only 6.8 percent of the year’s food. Oats are apparently preferred and in March constitute 15.4 percent of the month’s food. These March stomachs came from the Southern States, so it is probable that the grain was picked up on newly sown fields.” Weed seed is not an important item, amounting to only 6 percent for the year; its “erratic distribution evidently indicates that weed seed is not sought after, but is simply taken when nothing better is at hand. Miscellaneous items of vegetable food amount to 16.6 percent of the food of the year. Fruit was found in a few stomachs, but does not appear to any important extent. Only three kinds were determined, but several stomachs contained pulp or skin that could not be identified. Several buffalo berries (Shepherdia argentea) were found in one stomach, hackberries (Celtie occidentalis) in another, and seeds of blackberries or raspberries (Rubus) in two or three others. Mast was found in a few stomachs, but the greater part of the miscellaneous food was indeterminable.”
Francis H. Allen tells me that the rusty blackbird feeds on the seeds of the white ash. Milton P. Skinner (1928) says that, in North Carolina, “in addition to the seeds, waste grain and insects usually eaten by all blackbirds, the Rusty Blackbirds add fruits from the sour gum in December, January and February, and dogwood berries in January. In February, Rusty Blackbirds feed in cowpea fields on insects, but do not disturb any waste peas that may be present.”
Economic status: From the above study of its food habits it appears that the rusty blackbird is of no great economic importance, either one way or the other. It does no great damage to agriculture, for the small amounts of cultivated fruits and berries eaten are insignificant; and, although it consumes considerable grain, this is mostly taken as waste grain during the late fall and winter, and does not interfere with harvesting; some newly sown grain may be picked up in the early spring. On the other hand, as it does not spend the summer in agricultural regions, it cannot be as helpful to the farmer in destroying harmful insects as some other species. But it does enough good to be worthy of protection.
Behavior: Mr. Skinner (1928) writes:
Rusty Blackbirds on the ground walk, and run nimbly, with a nodding of their heads forward and backward in time to their own steps. As compared with other blackbirds, this species is perhaps tamer and certainly more quiet, composed and dignified. When hunting across the ground, members of the flock are continually walking and running, and frequently individual birds fly a few feet to a position at the front. While Rusty Blackbirds fly in dense compact flocks all winter, and appear to enjoy the society of other members of their own kind, they are less apt to join other species. When in flocks composed of several species, the Rusty Blackbirds usually split off into separate flocks composed of their own kind. But at times they vary this and join flocks of Meadowlarks and Starlings; but on the other hand Starlings, Cowbirds and Red-winged Blackbirds more often join the Rusty Blackbirds. During the winter these Blackbirds are also seen temporarily with Bluebirds, Juncos, Doves and Horned Larks.
While the flocks of Rusty Blackbirds are more dense and compact than most other species, they are not so much so as those of Red-winged Blackbirds. A flock in flight moves steadily onward, but the individual birds undulate up and down, or swing from side to side, so that the relative positions constantly change and give the flock a rippling appearance. They fly either against the wind or with it. In the latter case, just before alighting on ground or trees they wheel and come up to their perches against the wind. In its minor points, the flight of these birds is thrush-like. Rusty Blackbirds are quiet during the winter, but the song also suggests a thrush rather than a blackbird.
Behavior in Ohio during migrations is thus described by Trautman (1940): “During migrations the birds were found most frequently on wet ground or near water. Many spent the days in the cattail marshes and on the shores of the lake, where they fed while wading in the shallows. In the inland brushy swamps they also fed in shallow water or on wet ground. There were flocks about the ‘sky ponds’ and overflow puddles in fields, especially in early spring, and small groups were along the banks of the streams. At night all except a few roosted in cattail swamps about the lake, on Cranberry Island, or in the denser and more brushy inland swamps. Throughout the bird’s entire sojourn it was a close associate of the Eastern Redwing, and to a lesser extent of the Bronzed Grackle, Cowbird, and Starling.”
Mr. Brewster (1936) tells of a blackbird roost in eastern Massachusetts:
October 4,1901. *** A little before sunset I paddled up river to Beaver Dam Lagoon to investigate the Blackbird roost. A good many Rusty Blackbirds had already arrived and others, as well as Cowbirds, were coming almost continuously from every direction (but chiefly from the west) in small flocks or singly. Both species are roosting together in the button bushes and low, dense willows near the head of the lagoon. Into these they pitched headlong, disappearing at once among the dense foliage. They seemed to have no fear or suspicion but sought their roosts without hesitation or loss of time. A few restless birds, however, flitted from thicket to thicket before they finally settled for the night. I counted upward of 175 of which about one half were Rusties and all the others apparently Cowbirds. They made a deafening clamor, keeping it up until nearly dark.
John B. Lewis (1931) relates the following interesting experience:
About noon, November 6, 1930, in company with my friend Mr. J. Frank Duncan I was walking through a tract of partly wooded pasture land belonging to his estate. A flock of 50 or more Rusty Blackbirds (Euphagus carolinus) were feeding on the ground farther up the hill in the direction in which we were walking. Suddenly there was a great commotion among the Blackbirds and instantly one of them darted directly toward us, closely pursued by a Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter velox). Mr. Duncan and I were side by side and with a space of about two feet between us. In an incredibly short time the Blackbird darted between us screaming at the top of his voice, while the Hawk, who evidently did not see us until within ten feet, frantically checked himself, noticeably fanning our faces, and when within two feet of us swerved to one side and made haste into the woods. When the Hawk began to check his speed he was within a foot of the Blackbird, and with both feet stretched forward to grasp it.
Ruthven Deane (1895) received a letter from his friend, Jesse N. Cummings, of Anahuac, Tex., telling to what extremes these blackbirds will go for food when hard pressed to find it. There had been a heavy snowfall, covering the ground to a depth of 20 inches for a period of 3 or 4 days. An artesian well had kept the ground bare on a small portion of the bay shore, where large numbers of snipe, some robins and other birds had congregated to hunt for food. The letter states: “At this small open piece of ground, the Rusty and Crow Blackbirds had collected, but I did not see them kill many Snipe the first day or two, but the third and fourth days they just went for them. I should say that I saw them actually kill ten or twelve Snipe on the ground where the snow had melted, but there were thirty or forty dead ones that I saw in other places. The Rusty Blackbirds were the principle aggressors, and it was astonishing to see how quickly they could attack and lay out a Snipe or a Robin. Both species were killed while on the ground and the Blackbirds would only eat the head, or as near as I could see, the brain, while the body was left untouched.”
Voice: Aretas A. Saunders contributes the following description of the song of the rusty blackbird, as heard on migration, based on eight records: “There are two types of song, the first a rhythmical alternation of a phrase of two or three notes, with a single higher pitched note. This song goes on for some time, with indefinite length, and therefore may be considered a long-continued song, like songs of the mockingbirds and vireos. The first phrase is quite musical, the notes rising a little in pitch. The single note of higher pitch is rather squeaky in quality. The whole song sounds like tolalee eek tolalee eck, etc. This song is exceedingly even and rhythmic, the pauses between phrases being just twice as long as the phrases, and in my timed records a phrase and the pause following occupy from four-fifths to one full second.
“The second type of song consists of a rather rapid repetition, two or three times, of a 3-note phrase, rising in pitch. For one such song I wrote, in the field, the sound of the phrases as kawicklee kawicklee. This is often repeated at intervals, but less rhythmically than the first song. In one case the bird called a short kick kick kick between the songs.
“The pitch of rusty blackbird songs varies from A ‘ ‘ to D ‘ ‘ ‘ The high squeak in the first type of song is usually pitched on C” or D””, the highest note of the piano or just above it, while the other phrases may begin anywhere from two tones to an octave lower.
“Singing on the spring migration is to be heard in Connecticut in March or April. My average date for the first song heard is March 19 and for the last April 16. The earliest song heard was on March 2, 1930, and the latest May 2,1939. Three times, in my experience, I have heard rusty blackbirds sing in the fall: October 13, 1935; October 31, 1937; and October 12, 1945.
“Call notes I have heard are a short kick, not so loud as the chack of the redwing, and a rattle like twururo.”
Francis H. Allen has sent mc the following study: “The chuck note of this species, as I hear it, is rougher than that of the redwing, though much less rough than that of the grackle, as well as higher pitched than the latter.
“On April 17, 1938, in West Roxbury, Mass., I took rather careful notes on the song of the rusty blackbird. I watched one for a long time at close range. It sang pretty constantly in a willow over a brook and used the two phrases I have been familiar with, but not always in regular alternation as is commonly the case. The more familiar phrase I syllabify as ‘wisslter-ee. This phrase would be repeated over and over, hut frequently a phrase with the final ee on a lower pitch would be interpolated. This latter phrase was never repeated until at least one of the former had intervened. It was always followed immediately by the phrase first mentioned, with a shorter interval than between the repetitions of that phrase or between that and a following low-pitched one. The phrase with the low-pitched final note began with a higher pitched wissiter than that of the other. The ‘shuffling’ notes, always present in the rusty blackbird’s song, seemed more liquid and less rustling, heard at this close range, than I have before considered them. For my own immediate purposes I syllabified the two phrases roughly as oodle-awee, eedle-a-woo. The order, however, should probably be reversed, so that a continuous performance might go like this: high-low lowhigh, high-low low-high, etc. The commas indicate a longer rest than the blanks. If I numbered the eedle-a-woo phrase as 1 and the oodle-a wee phrase as 2, the succession would then be: 1: 2, 1: 2, 1: 2, 2, 2, 2, 2, 2, 1: 2, 1: 2.
“What is of special interest is the fact, which I observed many times, that the tail was spread with many phrases, but was spread wider with No. 1 than with No. 2. The width of the spread was relative, not absolute.”
Field marks: The rusty blackbird is not always an easy bird to identify in the field. In spring the migrating flocks may easily be confused with the early flocks of male redwings, for at that time the latter often show little or no red on the wings when perched, and might be mistaken for rusties. The females of the two species are not at all alike, and their habits are different .
In the fall, the rusty blackbirds deserve their name, as the black plumage of the males and the dark plumage of the females are both more or less veiled with the rusty edgings, and this is much more conspicuous in the younger birds.
In the Central-Western States, this species is even more difficult to distinguish from Brewer’s blackbird. The latter has a thicker bill at the base and a purplish black head, which the rusty does not have. In the fall, the rusty blackbird is much more extensively rusty than is the Brewer’s.
Enemies: The narrow escape of a terrified rusty blackbird from a sharp-shinned hawk, as related above, shows that these blackbirds recognize the aecipitrine hawks and probably the larger falcons as deadly enemies.
As the rusty blackbird breeds mainly north of the area where cowbirds are abundant, it is seldom imposed upon by these birds, and being larger, would probably not be a very satisfactory foster parent to this parasite.
Friedmann (1934) reports: “Mr. T. E. Randall found two nests of this bird in Alberta, each with eggs of the Nevada Cowbird. Mr. A. D. Henderson writes me that he found the species victimized in Alberta. These are the first records for this bird as a molothrine victim.” Harold S. Peters (1936) recorded one louse, Myrsidea incerta (Kell.), as an external parasite on this blackbird.
Fall: Although not early migrants, the rusty blackbirds desert their breeding haunts as soon as the young are able to fly and to feed themselves. According to Kennard (1920) this occurs about the middle of July in northern New England; they are no longer seen in solitary pairs, but “again become gregarious, and are seen in small flocks, flying high overhead, between the lakes, or feeding along their shores, getting ready for their southern migration.”
The fall migration begins early in September, but is not in full swing until October, when the birds are pouring through the northern States in immense flocks; the flight continues through November in diminishing numbers, and a few birds linger into December. Tufts tells me that the average date, over a 4-year period, when the species was last seen at Wolfville, Nova Scotia, is October 17. He has one record for early winter, December 16, 1921, “when a brightcolored male was seen feeding on the main highway in company with three blue jays. There was snow on the ground at the time.”
When the flight is well underway it is sometimes quite spectacular. Wendell Taber tells me that, at Lynnfield, Mass., on October 10, 1937, he saw a migrating flock that extended for at least a mile, or as far as he could see; the birds were flying southward on a broad front extending from east to west; the wave was from 20 to 40 birds deep from vanguard to rearguard, and only one bird deep vertically.
Brewster (1906) writes:
In autumn Rusty Blackbirds are most numerous in the Cambridge Region during the month of October, when roving flocks may be found quite as often in upland fields and pastures as in the lowlands. Wherever they find a field of ripening corn: whether of the yellow, or the sweet, variety: they are sure to visit it almost daily, from the time of their first arrival to that when the last stalks are harvested by the farmer. Early in the season they puncture the kernels and suck out the pasty contents, and after the corn has hardened they sometimes swallow it whole. During the greater part of October they may be seen associating with Robins in “cedar pastures” or even with Blue Jays in oak and chestnut woods. Indeed there are few places in our country districts which they do not visit occasionally at this season. At evening the scattered flocks all fly to the swamps, sometimes congregating in considerable numbers to spend the night together.
During the fall migration, in October, these birds sometimes gather in large numbers in the tall deciduous trees, oaks, walnuts, maples, and elms that form a dense grove of thick foliage along a stream that flows past my back yard, close to the center of the city and within a stone’s throw of brick buildings. Scores of them pour in after sunset in loose, scattering flocks, and move about chattering in the trees, or drop down to the banks of the stream to feed or drink. But they never spend the night here; they are always restless and active, and they move away before darkness comes, to find some other roosting place for the night .
Winter: Most of the rusty blackbirds spend the winter in the Southern States, but there are several records of individuals, or even small flocks, surviving the rigors of our northern winters. A Nova Scotia record has been mentioned. John C. Phillips (1912) gives several winter records for Massachusetts and tells of seeing a flock of 18 that spent the whole of a severe winter in Essex County. “They were getting most of their food, apparently, from a large pile of horse manure.”
From Alberta, Frank L. Farley (1932) writes: “Eleven Rusty Blackbirds spent the entire winter of 19 19: 20 in the stockyards in Camrose. On November 6th, 1919, the thermometer registered 24 below zero. Towards the end of January the cold was intense, the mercury on several occasions dropping to 55 below zero, yet the blackbirds appeared to get along just as well as the snow-bunting with which they fed.”
At Buckeye Lake, Ohio, according to Trautman (1940), “wintering individuals fed about the water as long as it was free of ice, but whenever the lakes, ponds, and streams were ice-covered, they were to be found in fields of uncut corn or of rank weeds near brushy thickets. Wintering birds roosted in cattail marshes and in the denser and more brushy inland swamps.”
Skinner (1928) says that, in North Carolina, “during the winter from November to February there was a flock of fifty Rusty Blackbirds almost constantly about the fields near the Pinehurst Dairy. This flock was composed of both sexes, but began to split up and scatter about the first of March. Although these birds were usually on the ground, they often alighted on low trees: oaks, pines, gums, dogwoods and sycamores: and on board fences and the wires and posts of wire fences. Occasionally they are seen on race-courses or golf links, and often about streams or the thickets over streams. Still it is quite noticeable that these birds prefer the uplands with other blackbirds more than any other locality.”
In South Carolina, “great numbers of Rusty Blackbirds frequent the rice plantations in winter, associating with Florida Grackles (Quiscalus quiscula aglaeus) and Boat-tailed Grackles (Megaquiscalus major) where stacks of rice have been left in the fields,” according to Arthur T. Wayne (1910).
Range: Alaska and Canada, south to Texas and the Gulf coast.
Breeding Range: The continental rusty blackbird breeds from northern Alaska (Kotzebue Sound, Barrow, Fort Yukon), northern Yukon (Porcupine River at Alaska boundary, King Point), northwestern and central Mackenzie (mouth of Peel River, Pikes Portage), northern Manitoba (Churchill, York Factory), northern Ontario (Fort Severn, Lake River Post), northern Quebec (Fort Chimo), and central Labrador (Nain, Makkovik); south to south-central Alaska (Bethel, Fort Eghert), central and northeastern British Columbia (between the Rocky Mountains and coastal ranges: Atlin, Nulki Lake), south-central Alberta (Calgary, Red Deer), central Saskatchewan (Big River, Emma Lake), central Manitoba (probably Oxford Lake), western and southern Ontario (Savanne, Bruce County, Algonquin Park), and southern Quebec (Inlet), through the northern Appalachians to northeastern New York (Raquette Lake, Long Lake), northern Vermont (Franklin, Saint Johnsbury), northern New Hampshire (Averill, Lake Umbagog), central-western, central, and southeastern Maine (Oxford, to Washington counties), and southern New Brunswick (Scotch Lake) .
Winter Range: Winters casually north to southern British Columbia (Okanagan Landing), central Alberta (Camrose), southern Saskatchewan (Eastend), southern Manitoba (Portage la Prairie), central Minnesota (Fosston, Elk River), southern Wisconsin (Madison, Waukesha), southern Michigan (Kalamazoo, East Lansing), southern Ontario (Kitchener, Reaboro), central and southeastern New York (Geneva, Rhinebeck), central New Hampshire and southern Maine (Falmouth, Calais); south casually to central Colorado (Loveland, Colorado Springs), central and southeastern Texas (Abilene, Seabrook), the Gulf Coast, and northern Florida (Cedar Keys, New Smyrna).
Casual reeords: Casual in southwestern and southeastern Alaska (Nushagak, Kodiak Island, Wrangell), California (Amador County, Santa Rosa and San Clemente Islands, Jamacha), Idaho (Potlatch), Arizona (Grand Canyon, Tucson), and western Texas (Alpine).
Accidental in Siberia (Indian Point), Alaskan islands in Bering Sea (Saint Paul, Saint Lawrence), Baja California (Valladeres) and Greenland (Fiskenacs, Fredrikshaab).
Migration: The data deal with the species as a whole.
Early dates of spring arrival are: North Carolina: Raleigh, February 10 (average of 10 years, March 2). Virginia: Naruna, February 14. West Virginia: Bluefield, February 8. Maryland: Laurel, February 25 (median of 7 years, March 18). Pennsylvania: B erks County, February 10. New Jersey: Milltown, February 23. New York: Mastic, February 16; Geneva, February 21. Connecticut: Fairfield, March 2. Rhode Island: Providence, March 17. Massachusetts: Belmont and Concord, February 20. Vermont: Rutland, March 11 (average of 13 years, April 3). New Hampshire: East Westmoreland, March 5. Maine: Hebron, March 9; Ellsworth, March 10. Quebec: Quebec, March 31. New Brunswick: Scotch Lake, March 22 (median of 26 years, April 7). Nova Scotia: Wolfvile, March 20 (median of 8 years, March 25). Prince Edward Island: North River, March 31. Newfoundland: St. Anthony, April 28. Greenland: southwest Greenland, March 8. Arkansas: Winslow, February 21. Tennessee: Knoxville, March 1. Kentucky: Russelville, March 11. Missouri: Jasper City, February 20. Illinois: Toulon, February 22; Chicago, February 25 (average, March 15). Indiana: Worthington, February 25. Ohio: Toledo, February 19; Buckeye Lake, February 22 (median, February 28). Michigan: Three Rivers, February 27; Blaney Park, March 18. Ontario: London, March 14 (average of 10 years, March 29); Ottawa, March 19 (average of 28 years, April 20). Iowa: Winthrop, February 29. Wisconsin: North Freedom, March 7. Minnesota: Owatonna and Wilder, March 10 (average of 14 years for southern Minnesota, March 23); Fosston, March 16 (average of 10 years for northern Minnesota, March 24). Kansas: Topeka, February 12. Nebraska: Red Cloud, February 12 (median of 8 years, March 1). South Dakota: Aberdeen, February 20. North Dakota: Fargo, March 21 (average for Cass County, March 29). Manitoba: Treesbank, March 19 (median of 53 years, April 6). Saskatchewan: Densmore, April 4. Alberta: Glenevis, April 3. British Columbia: Atlin, April 14. Yukon: west of Dawson, May 2. Alaska: Kalskag, April 10; Fairbanks, May 1.
Late dates of spring departure are: Florida: Gainesville, April 14. Alabama: Decatur, May 15. Georgia: Athens, May 7. South Carolina: Greenwood, April 29. North Carolina: Raleigh, May 9 (average of 6 years, April 17). Virginia: Naruna, May 6. District of Columbia: May 14 (average of 27 years, April 18). Maryland: Laurel, May 10 (median of 7 years, April 26). Pennsylvania: Renovo, May 22. New Jersey: Morristown, May 18. New York: Long Island, June 3; Rochester, May 23. Connecticut: Norwalk, May 15. Massachusetts: Northampton, May 28. Vermont: St. Johnsbury, May 24. Maine-Ellsworth, May 21. Quebec: Montreal, May 28. Louisiana: New Orleans, May 10. Mississippi: Bay St. Louis, April 25. Arkansas: Winslow, May 1. Kentucky: Danvile, May 1. Missouri: St. Louis, May 1. flhinois: Chicago region, May 16. Indiana: Bloomington, May 16. Ohio: central Ohio, May 31; Youngstown, May 27. Michigan: Sault Ste. Marie, May 26; Detroit area, May 12. Ontario: Ottawa, May 24. Iowa: Sigourney, May 17. Wisconsin: Winneconne, May 12. Minnesota: Cloquet, May 25; Minneapolis, May 17 (average, May 8). Texas: Austin, May 4; Dallas and Houston, April 28. Oklahoma: Tulsa County, April 29. Kansas: Blue Rapids, May 5. South Dakota: Aberdeen, May 16. North Dakota: St. Thomas, May 20.
Early dates of fall arrival are: North Dakota: Fargo, September 5. South Dakota: Arlington, October 5. Kansas: Lawrence, September 13. Oklahoma: Kenton, September 18. Texas: Decatur, October 12. Minnesota: Iron Junction, August 20 (average of 6 years for northern Minnesota, September 12); Minneapolis, September 8 (average of 12 years for southern Minnesota, September 21). Wisconsin: Ladysmith, September 10. lowa: Marshalltown, August 27; Grinnell, September 13. Ontario: Lake Nipissing, August 18: 19; Hamilton, September 13. Michigan: Blaney Park, August 8; Charity Islands, September 13. Ohio: Lucas County, August 23; Oberlin, September 10. Indiana: Richmond, September 15. Blinois: Chicago region, September 5 (average, October 1). Tennessee: Athens, September 29. Arkansas: Winslow, October 14. Mississippi: Saucier, November 8. Louisiana: Covington, November 17. New Brunswick: Grand Manan, August 23. Quebec: Anticosti Island, September 14. Maine: Livermore Falls, September 10. New Hampshire: New Hampton, September 8. Vermont: St. Johnsbury, September 2. Massachusetts: Springfield, September 10. Rhode Island: Providence, September 22. Connecticut: New Haven, September 11. New York: Brooklyn, September 1; Geneva, September 5 (average of 7 years, September 28). New Jersey: Passaic, September 29. Pennsylvania: Renovo, September 14. Maryland: Laurel, October 1 (median of 5 years, October 20). District of Columbia: September 16 (average of 18 years, October 22). West Virginia: Bluefield, September 21. Virginia: Blacksburg, October 11. North Carolina: Raleigh, October 14 (average of 11 years, October 26). South Carolina: Clemson College, October 19. Georgia: Atlanta, September 20; Fitzgerald, October 18. Alabama: Autaugaville, October 19. Florida: St. Marks, October 17; Everglades National Park, October 20.
Late dates of fall departure are: Alaska: Wrangell, November 30; Point Barrow, October 24. Yukon: west of Dawson, September 17. British Columbia: Okanagan Landing, December 5; Metlakatla, November 26. Alberta: Glenevis, December 2. Mackenzie: Fort Simpson, October 13. Saskatchewan: Camrose, December 10; Eastend, November 26. Manitoba: Treesbank November 28 (median of 46 years, November 2). North Dakota: Jamestown, November 17. South Dakota: Sioux Falls, December 8. Nebraska: Lincoln, November 25. Kansas: Newton, November 19. Minnesota: Minneapolis, December 9 (average, November 14); St Vincent, November 29 (average of 9 years for northern Minnesota, November 18). Wisconsin: Green Bay, November 25. Iowa: Sigourney, December 9. Ontario: Plover Mills, November 30; Ottawa, November 5 (average of 25 years, October 17). Michigan: Isle Royale, November 30; Kalamazoo, November 22. Ohio: Canton, November 30; Buckeye Lake, November 24 (median, November 21). Indiana: Sedan, November 25. Illinois: Chicago, November 28. Missouri: Concordia and Jasper City, November 26. Kentucky: Versailles, November 20. Tennessee: Athens, November 21. Newfoundland-Tompkins, October 4. Prince Edward Island: Mount Hubert, October 17. Nova Scotia: Yarmouth, October 27. New Brunswick: St. John, November 10; Scotch Lake, November 1 (median 16 years, October 16). Quebec: Anticosti Island, December 4; Montreal, November 8 (average of 9 years, October 24). Maine: near Portland,. November 5; Ellsworth, November 4. New Hampshire: Winchester, November 20. Vermont: Burlington, November 24. Massachusetts: Martha’s Vineyard, December 2. Rhode Island: Providence, November 25. Connecticut: New Haven, December 13. New York: Orient, December 8; Schenectady, November 23. New Jersey: Englewood, December 19. Pennsylvania: Jeffersonville, December 9; Pittsburg, November 26. Maryland: Laurel, December 28 (median of 4 years, December 4). West Virginia: Bluefield, December 6. Virginia: Blacksburg, November 28. North Carolina-Raleigh, December 16 (average of 8 years, Novembei~ 17) .
Egg dates: Alberta: 53 records, May 15, to June 30; 39 records, May 21 to June 6. Alaska: 10 records, May25 to June 26; 5 records, June 3 to June 19. Maine: 17 records, May 18 to June 16; 10 records, May 24 to May 29.
New York: 8 records, May 7 to May 27.
Nova Scotia: 7 records, May 10 to May 21 .
Newfoundland Rusty Blackbird
EUPHAGUS CAROLINUS NIGRANS Burleigh and Peters
Similar in its habits to the continental race, this bird shows a preference for the vicinity of water in choosing its breeding spots. Thus, C. J. Maynard (1896) writes, “There are spots on the Magdalen Islands which might rightly be termed sloughs, for they are perfectly inaccessible as the surface, although apparently solid, is in reality so thin that it will not bear the weight of a dog. This floating mass of vegetation, however, supports bushes and in some cases small trees, all of which grow very thickly together. I had observed blackbirds about them on several occasions, but as they kept well in the center of the large tracts, I could not make out at first what they were but after a time found that a large colony of Rusty Grackles were evidently building in one of the above described places.” Peters and Burleigh (1951) found the rusty blackbird in Newfoundland stayed about boggy areas of stunted spruce, around woodland pools, margins of ponds and streams and in wet lowlands with heavy underbrush. They migrate in flocks, and nest in small groups of several pairs. When they are disturbed they all fly up into a tree, facing the same direction.”
Spring: Robie W. Tufts writes that the average date of arrival in Nova Scotia over a 10-year period is March 24 .
Nesting: My personal experience with the nesting habits of the Newfoundland rusty blackbird has been limited to two northeastern localities, both of which were quite typical of the species as a whole. On June 18, 1904, near East Point in the Magda.len Islands, we found a colony of these birds nesting among the boggy pond holes and treacherous floating bogs such as those described by Maynard. In the spruce thickets along the edges of these bogs the blackbirds were abundant. Their nests were well concealed at moderate heights in the thickest spruces. The young were by that time all out of the nests and mostly able to fly; their anxious parents were very noisy and solicitous, flying about us, scolding and chirping in great distress.
On a later date, June 19, 1921, my companion, Herbert K. Job, returned to the same general locality and collected for me a nice set of four fresh eggs, which was probably a second laying; the nest was 10 feet up, at the top of a broken-off spruce in a damp pasture thickly overgrown with young spruces.
On June 17, 1912, while we were exploring some extensive marshes along the Sandy River in central Newfoundland, my guide found a rusty blackbird’s nest containing four young birds about 2 or 3 days old; the nest was only 3 feet up in a small, bushy red spruce in a bog, where there were other small spruces scattered about; the nest was made externally of fir and spruce twigs, internally of dry grasses, and neatly lined with fine grasses. I have four sets of eggs in my collection, taken for me by J. R. Whitaker near Grand Lake, Newfoundland, at dates ranging from May 3 to June 10; the nests were all placed in spruces at heights ranging from 5 to 9 feet.
Robie W. Tufts has sent me the following nesting data for Nova Scotia: “My earliest record for fresh eggs is May 12, 1905, on which dates two females were found sitting on their respective nests, which contained four fresh eggs each. These were collected. Next day both these birds were seen building new nests nearby. On May 23 and 24, respectively, five eggs were taken from each of their nests. On May 12, 1921, five eggs far advanced in incubation were collected; this would suggest that the nest contained fresh eggs about May 1. The average date, however, for fresh eggs down the years has been about May 14.”
Eggs: The eggs are similar to those of the mainland race, light bluish green, spotted with brown and gray; a set consists of four or five.
Plumages: The molts and plumages follow the pattern of the mainland race.
Food: The food of the Newfoundland rusty blackbird is in every way the same as that of its mainland form. Peters and Burleigh (1951) noted, in Newfoundland, that the birds fed along the shores of ponds and bogs, even wading at times in the shallow water. “They feed upon many kinds of insects, worms, crustaceous and other small animal life, and also upon seeds of weeds and grains.”
Voice: Of its voice, which is similar to that of the better known mainland form, Peters and Burleigh (1951) write: “Their so-called song resembles nothing more than several rusty hinges being opened and closed, and it is far from musical.”
Field marks: “A rather short-tailed, black bird, slightly smaller than a robin,” according to Peters and Burleigh (1951), “in fall it becomes rusty above and brownish below.”
Winter: The Newfoundland rusty blackbird has been found in winter in South Carolina (at Mount Pleasant, January 16, and at Huger, February 13 and 26), North Carolina (Asheville, March 18 and April 7), Georgia (Sherwood Plantation, December 25) and Virginia (near Fairfax, November 19).
Range: The Newfoundland rusty blackbird breeds in the Magdalen Islands, Nova Scotia (Halifax, Barrington), and Newfoundland. It has been recorded in winter in North Carolina (Asheville) and Georgia (Grady County).