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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Audubon California's Samantha Arthurs gives a quick update on this seasons Tricolored Blackbird breeding.
Audubon California field technician Bill Abbott shows a colony of Tricolored Blackbirds in Sacramento County.
Our own Samantha Arthur caught video of this large colony of about 3,000 Tricolored Blackbirds in Sacramento County over the past weekend. These birds are in a patch of blackberry off I-50, and the birds fly over the highway to forage in the foothill grasslands. Right now the birds are nest building and breeding. The males are singing and the colony is very active. Soon they will quiet down and incubate eggs.
Our staff is out in the field with a variety of partners looking to protect Tricolored Blackbird colonies.
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.
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.
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.
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