Why is the rusty blackbird in trouble? Quebec researchers win $60K grant to find out

Quebec's boreal forests and muskeg once abounded with rusty blackbirds, nestled near the water.

Just smaller than a robin, with flashy yellow eyes, they moult in the fall, their black or grey-black feathers replaced by the brownish plumage that give the bird its name.

But the once-plentiful bird is now listed as a vulnerable species. Pascal Côté hopes to crack the mystery of its drastic decline.

"We're starting with the beginning," said Côté, the director of the Observatoire d'oiseaux de Tadoussac, a bird observatory located at the mouth of the Saguenay River, about 200 kilometres northeast of Québec City.

"We don't really know a lot of things about the species."

The country's oldest bird conservation charity, Bird Protection Quebec, is giving the observatory $60,000 over three years, to try to figure out why the rusty blackbird population has declined by 90 per cent in the past 50 years.

It's the largest grant Côté has seen in his ten years with the organization.

"It's really good news, to get a grant like that," he said. "It's a gift."

Wintering grounds a mystery

Ornithologists know that in summer the rusty blackbird breeds across Canada and in Alaska. The birds spend their winters in the Mississippi Valley or on the Atlantic coastal plain, which includes mainly South Carolina and Georgia.

But bird experts like Côté do not know where the birds gather in big concentrations. And they don't know where to find the wintering grounds of those that breed in Quebec.

Côté's team will attach tiny radio transmitters to the legs of 20 birds each year.

"When the birds will move, they will track the signals from the birds all around the migration corridor. So we will be able to follow each bird," he said.

There are already theories about what is afflicting the blackbirds, such as possible mercury contamination or initiatives to control the population of other types of blackbirds that destroy crops.

However, Côté suspects North Americans may be stripping the bird of its habitat.

"Probably logging in boreal forests has a major impact," he surmises.

Listen for sound of rusty hinge

April provides Quebecers with a rare window of opportunity to spot this uncommon bird. During the course of its migration, the rusty blackbird tends to stop in small, flooded woodlands along the St. Lawrence River on their way farther north.

Côté said people can identify it not only by its appearance, but also by its call, which sounds a bit like a rusty hinge.