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.
Ian Souza-Cole, Audubon California's new field technician, standing in the forage field at Merced National Wildlife Refuge to show the height of the forage blend that was planted for Tricolored Blackbirds. This growth is a major improvement from last year and we hope it will attract nesting Tricolored Blackbirds.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service today announced that the Tricolored Blackbird is one of several species that it will formally consider for protection under the Endangered Species Act. Surveys last year indicate that the number of nearly-endemic species have dropped as much as 44 percent since 2011. The announcement from the Service begins a 60-day comment period, which will be followed by more in-depth consideration of the petition.
The Center for Biological Diversity filed the petition to list the Tricolored Blackbird in February.
The decision to move the federal listing process forward tracks with a similar move at the state level. In June, the California Fish and Game Commission voted against advancing a petition to list the Tricolored Blackbird under the California Endangered Species Act. That petition was also filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, and Audubon California supported it in writing, through public testimony, and through its network of supporters.
Following the Fish and Game Commission decision, both the Center for Biological Diversity and Audubon California called for reconsideration, due to a number of issues with the process through which the body made its decision. The Center for Biological Diversity subsequently refiled its petition.
For the last several years, Audubon California has worked aggressively to protect Tricolored Blackbird nesting colonies in the Central Valley. In January, at the urging of Audubon California and other partners, the Natural Resources Conservation Service issued a $1.1 million grant to support a partnership including Audubon California, the dairy industry, and federal agencies to support Tricolored Blackbird conservation.
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