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

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.

Tricolored Blackbirds nesting in the Central Valley

Ian Souza-Cole, field technician for Audubon California, got some great photos of Tricolored Blackbirds in the Central Valley last week. We're working hard to make sure that these colonies are protected, and the young birds are able to fledge. Rapid declines have put this species on the brink in recent years. You can help the birds right now.

Male and female Tricolored Blackbirds in the Central Valley. Photo: Ian Souza-Cole
Male Tricolored Blackbird in flight. Photo: Ian Souza-Cole
Tricolored Blackbird colony at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge. Photo: Ian Souza-Cole
Tricolored Blackbird colony at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge. Note the photobombing weasel. Photo: Ian Souza-Cole

When a weasel photobombs your Tricolored Blackbird photoshoot

Trikes on NPR

Samantha Arthur, conservation program manager, spent last week with Valley Public Radio's Ezra Romero. They hiked around Tricolored Blackbird colonies at Merced National Wildlife Refuge and a Fresno County dairman's property. The story will air tomorrow on NPR. 

Good news from Merced National Wildlife Refuge

Female Tricolored Blackbirds.

From Tricolored Blackbird Program Manager Samantha Arthur:

Great news! There are TWO colonies of Tricolored Blackbirds nesting at our Merced National Refuge enhancement site with each group being roughly 5,000 birds. These breeding families are benefiting from the silage planted with funds raised from you during last years $5/5 Birds Campaign. Will you help us reach this year's goal? We are only $5,000 short of making our $15,000 match. You can make your gift here.

Thousands of Tricolored Blackbird nests at risk on dairy farms right now

Samantha Arthur shot this photo of a Tricolored Blackbird nesting colony in Fresno County yesterday. If we're going to save this species, we need to make sure that every colony is protected. Photo: Samantha Arthur

We just received word from the field from Samantha Arthur that our staff has identified about 35,000 to 45,000 Tricolored Blackbird nesting on dairy farms in Kern, Tulare, and Merced counties. Those numbers are likely to change a little as the nesting season continues, but it's important to understand that each and every one of these nests is in danger of being destroyed unless we're able to strike agreements with farmers to delay harvest until the chicks have fledged. Thankfully, we're better prepared for this possibility than ever before. We're working closely with the dairy industry and government agencies to identify nesting colonies and get them protected.

This work is difficult and is more important now than ever. Tricolored Blackbirds are in a steep decline, so every colony is vital to the survival of the species. The California Fish & Game Commission recently made it a candidate for listing under the state Endangered Species Act. Learn more about the species here.

Please consider making a donation to our Tricolored Blackbird campaign. Every dollar of your contribution goes into preserving a future for this important California bird.

More than 35,000 Tricolored Blackbirds found nesting in dairy fields, so far

Photo: Teddy Llovet/Flickr

Just got a message from Samantha Arthurs, who runs Audubon California's Tricolored Blackbird conservation efforts, that she and others have identified "35,000 to 45,000 Tricolors nesting on dairies right now in Kern, Tulare, and Merced counties." These nests are at risk of destruction if we're not able to work with our partners in the dairy industry and federal agencies to protect them. Learn more about our program and, if you can, make a donation to our Tricolored Blackbird campaign. This is a file photo -- we hope to have photos from the field today.

Meet the man uncovering the mystery of Tricolored Blackbird migration
Audublog

Meet the man uncovering the mystery of Tricolored Blackbird migration

Audubon California staffers work tirelessly to save the Tricolored Blackbird, but we are not alone in our fight. Many others care deeply about this California bird. We collaborate with partners on the Tricolored Blackbird Working Group. Several members of this group come from the University of California, Davis, members like Marcel Holyoak.

How you can help, right now