An odd bird poses some odd problems

How would you describe the personality of the rusty blackbird in one word?

“Screwy? That’s not a biological word, but when you get out there in a mixed flock you realize that the rusty a very different bird from that redwing blackbird that’s right next to it,” Dan Cristol said. “It behaves differently. It responds differently to the environment.”

Rusty blackbirds are endemic to North America, breeding all the way across the arboreal forest and wintering in the southeast. The rusty has never been sighted outside North America, Cristol said, even though individuals of other migrating species often find themselves deposited by a weather system in utterly strange places.

They’re related to redwings and grackles, species that have experienced growth during the same period that their rusty cousins have lost 90 percent of their numbers.

“Redwing blackbirds and grackles have been able to adapt to the building of houses, the urbanization of the landscape and the destruction of wetlands and the creation of agricultural lands,” Cristol said. “These guys just haven’t.”

Andrew McGann and Jacob Armiger like to talk about the rusty blackbird’s need for a public relations consultant. “Even the name of this species, the rusty blackbird, doesn’t sound very pretty,” McGann said. “It’s not something that a marketing committee would say sounds like a good, healthy name.”

The boreal migrant is also related to the glamorous oriole family, prompting blackbird researchers to half-seriously propose a new name for the species: the arboreal oriole.

“But,” McGann says, “they’re not orioles.”