Saving the Tricolored Blackbird

The rare Tricolored Blackbird needs our help to survive.

This rare bird needs our help to survive. Photo: Photo by Martin Meyers

The Tricolored Blackbird is a remarkable bird that needs our help to survive. Found almost exclusively in California, its breeding colonies often teem with more than 50,000 birds, sometimes all settled into a single 10-acre field or wetland to raise their young. While similar to the more widespread Red-winged Blackbird, the Tricolored Blackbird is distinguished by its red shoulder patch with a bright white bar.

In the 19th Century, Tricolored Blackbird flocks were described as so numerous “as to darken the sky.” Since then, the population has declined from several million to fewer than 150,000 today. Over just the last 70 years, the Tricolored Blackbird population has decreased by more than 80%.

The reasons for this decline are many, but the loss of marsh and nearby feeding habitats along the coast and in southern California and the Central Valley is the main issue. With the loss of native habitat, the species has become dependent on agricultural lands, with most of the largest colonies nesting in grain fields. A real dilemma develops because Tricolored young typically have not yet left the nest before the time farmers harvest their crop, and harvesting destroys Tricolored Blackbird nests and young.

Collaborative Conservation

Audubon California is working closely with landowners and its partners in the Tricolored Blackbird Working Group to protect this species across California. The Tricolored Blackbird Working Group is a collaborative alliance of farmers, agricultural associations, governmental agencies, and environmental organizations that have all recognized the importance of a multi-faceted and cooperative approach to promote the long-term persistence of the Tricolored Blackbird. The Working Group strives to reverse the population decline of this species, and increase the population to more than 750,000 over the next 20 years.

The efforts of the Working Group are guided by the Tricolored Blackbird Conservation Plan that lays out a strategy to boost populations through long-term conservation planning and short-term action-oriented intervention. Specifically, the Plan commits stakeholders to implement: (1) habitat conservation projects to benefit the species; (2) a research program to more thoroughly understand the species’ life history; (3) a monitoring program to effectively document population trends and distribution; and (4) an outreach and education program to enhance public and private landowner awareness, and to build public support for conservation.

Audubon California recently took on the role of coordinating the working group’s efforts. For more information about these efforts or how you can help, please contact Tricolored Blackbird Conservation Project Manager Samantha Arthur at sarthur@audubon.org.

Recent news about the Tricolored Blackbird

Tricolored Blackbird colonies setting up in the Central Valley

We're getting reports from our field team that at least five Tricolored Blackbird nesting colonies have been found on dairy farms so far this spring. We're working closely with the State Department of Fish and Wildife, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and the Western Dairymen Assocation to contact the farmers and protect the nests. As we've discussed in the past, these colonies are in extreme danger when they nest on a dairy farm, because the farmers often need to harvest the field before the birds have fledged. Last year, we were able to protect every Tricolored Blackbird colony found on dairy farms, and that's our goal again this year.

Tricolored Blackbird surveyors out in the field this weekend

Tricolored Blackbird. Photo: Lee Karney/USFWS

The beginning of nesting season is a great opportunity to get a read on the population number of Tricolored Blackbirds. This weekend, about a hundred surveyors are taking the field in locations throughout the state to count the birds. The survey is being led by our friends at UC Davis. Lots of Audubon volunteers and staff are taking part. While the bird has been sharply declining in recent years -- 44 percent since 2011 -- we're optimistic that we'll find more birds this year. Rains this year have made things much more hospitable for the birds. That said, Tricolored Blackbirds nesting on dairy farms will still be in danger if we're not able to arrange to have the colonies protected. Results from this year's survey will be available later this summer.

Tricolored Blackbirds in Fresno County. Audubon California's Samantha Arthurs is out looking for nesting flocks of Tricolored Blackbirds today, and she spotted this flock in Fresno County. Nesting season starts soon, and we're going to be out there again trying to protect this struggling species.

Tricolored Blackbirds in Tulare County

We're on the lookout for new Tricolored Blackbird colonies this spring. Our team found this one at Atwell Island in Tulare County, a BLM property with an NRCS habitat enhancement on it. We were struck by how much more water there is in the wetlands this year. Our estimate was about 10 K birds.

Tricolored Blackbirds revving up for nesting season. Yesterday, our team found a growing colony of Tricolored Blackbirds at Atwell Island in Tulare County, a Bureau of Land Management property where the Natural Resources Conservation Service has done some habitat enhancements to attract the birds. We were struck by how much more water there is in the wetlands this year. Our estimate was about 10,000 birds. 

100% of vulnerable Tricolored Blackbird  colonies on farmland saved
Tricolored Blackbird

100% of vulnerable Tricolored Blackbird colonies on farmland saved

— Buy-out program successfully protects imperiled California species
Research reveals importance of Sierra foothills to Tricolored Blackbirds
Audublog

Research reveals importance of Sierra foothills to Tricolored Blackbirds

Study cites challenges and threats to maintain this unique population.

Interesting new research on the demise of the Passenger Pigeon

Passenger Pigeon skeleton. Photo: Public domain

GrrlScientist wrote an excellent piece on Medium, "Passenger pigeon extinction: it’s complicated," about new research behind what led to the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon. It's an interesting look at the how population fluctuations and human-based causes led to the demise of a once abundant bird. There are certainly lessons to be learned and correlations to our own campaign to save the Tricolored Blackbird from a similar fate.

Read the story here.

Tricolored Blackbird population at Atwell Island continues to expand

Atwell Island. Photo: NRCS-California

NRCS California reports that the Tricolored Blackbird population at Atwell Island, a restoration project run by NRCS in conjunction with Bureau of Land Management, has grown to 4,000 birds. Read their Medium story on the colony's success. It is encouraging to see other groups working hard, and seeing results in their efforts to save this imperiled bird.

Valley Public Radio joins Audubon California for Tricolored Blackbird tour

Photo: Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

Valley Public Radio producer Ezra David Romero spent the day with Tricolored Blackbird conservation program manager Samantha Arthur and our partners at Dairy Cares, NRCS, and Merced National Wildlife Refuge to see what it takes to help keep a species safe to reproduce. Listen to the story here.

How you can help, right now