The Tricolored Blackbird: Next on the Endangered List?

One evening last fall, on a restaurant deck overlooking Oceanside Harbor, I watched House Sparrows skitter around the floor, searching out crumbs.  A larger bird caught my eye and I thought, “Red-winged Blackbird.”  Then he uttered a noise rather like a snarling cat.  Or maybe an irritated chicken.  Okay—that’s no Red-winged Blackbird.  A closer look revealed a white border at the bottom of his red “epaulet” (feathers at the bird’s shoulder) where I had expected a Red-wing’s yellow border.  Whoa—a Tricolored Blackbird! What was he doing there?  You never really know, especially when dealing with critters that have wings and don’t read the range or habitat maps.  Regardless, life bird at the restaurant!  No binoculars, no spotting scope, no field guides needed.

But, unbeknownst to me at the time, the Tricolored Blackbird harbors a desperate secret.

Many people know the male Red-winged Blackbird—a medium-sized, glossy black bird with red epaulets edged with yellow. While similar to its more widespread cousin, the male Tricolored Blackbird has, as I noticed at the restaurant, those red epaulets bordered with thin strip of white. (Females and immature birds are challenging to differentiate, so let’s not go there.)  Just so you don’t get too cocky, here in coastal California you might also run across a variant group of Red-wings—called “bicolored”—that simply has red epaulets with no borders at all. Forewarned is forearmed.

The scientific name of the Tricolored Blackbird is Agelaius tricolor. Agelaius comes from the Greek word for “belonging to a flock;” and tricolor, as well as the common name, refers to the male’s colors of black, red, and white. Of course, a male Red-winged also shows three colors—black, red, and yellow.  And the male Tricolored has basically the same amount of red on his wings as a Red-winged does.  Oh, well—nothing’s perfect.

Currently, this species is pretty much restricted (“endemic”) to California, where about 99% of the population occurs.  (A few small, isolated pockets occur in Oregon, southern Washington, and possibly western Nevada.)  In the 19th century, Tricolored Blackbird flocks abounded.  One author in that era stated they were “the most abundant species in San Diego and Los Angeles counties. ”Estimates set some colonies at more than a million birds.  (“Belonging to a flock,” indeed).  Since then, though, the population has declined continuously and precipitously. In 2001, the San Diego County Bird Atlas listed only 21 breeding colonies of Tricoloreds in San Diego County: among the largest, Pauma Valley (1280 pairs), Swan Lake (1000), Ramona Water District Pond (1000), and Campo (1000).  In the last decade alone, the Tricolored Blackbird population has decreased by more than two thirds, to an all-time low of 145,000. What the heck is going on with these birds?

Creating huge breeding colonies, Tricoloreds seek habitats near water with suitable nesting areas (e.g., marshlands) in proximity to open habitat for foraging.  Once, such habitats weren’t hard to find.  But with widespread land conversions, suitable options dwindled. The birds then turned to dairy farm wheat fields for breeding. With this shift, though, a deadly conflict arises: Tricolored young typically have not yet left their nests before farmers want to harvest their wheat. Yet such harvesting destroys Tricolored Blackbird nests and young. Some reports hold that as many as 20,000 nests have been lost by harvesting a single field.

Conservation groups have fought to list this species for state protection for more than a decade.  In December 2015, the California Fish and Game Commission finally declared the species a candidate for this protection, providing safeguards until the species receives a place on the state’s endangered list.  So at least some brakes might be applied to the downward slide.  But such actions are likely not enough.

All is not lost, though.  Recently, Audubon California has supported the Natural Resources Conservation Service in creating agreements with dairy farmers to delay harvesting their fields until the young Tricoloreds mature and leave their nests. In addition, Audubon California is collaborating with the Tricolored Blackbird Working Group—an alliance of farmers, researchers, governmental agencies, agricultural associations, and conservation organizations—to implement an action plan to reach a goal of 750,000 birds.  As part of that effort, NPR featured these special birds and their advocates in early August:

John Muir stated, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”  Let’s do what we can to support those working on the conservation challengesfor this species.  At a minimum, we can spread the word and raise awareness of the issues before the species blinks out of existence and we find out, after the fact, all of the other important things to which Tricolored Blackbirds were “hitched.”  As the Audubon California Web site says, “Spread the word.  It’s the least you can do.”  The very least.

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