When considering all the amazing wildlife you can see in Alaska, you might be thinking of spectacular animals like humpback whales, polar bears, bison, and bald eagles. Next to such giants, perhaps a group of more modestly-sized, chatty birds, mostly known for their black feathers, wouldn’t immediately come to mind as something to see in Alaska.
It turns out that Alaska is a critical home to a seriously endangered blackbird species, and the state also plays host to many interesting rare blackbird sightings. What’s so special about blackbirds? What exactly is a blackbird anyway?
Blackbirds are an intriguing family of birds with many interesting behaviors. While their black feathers, intelligence, and social interactions may bring to mind members of the Corvid family, like crows and ravens, blackbirds have their own family, the Icteridae.
Not All Black Birds are Blackbirds
You might expect that a family of blackbirds would be named for its black feathers, but when it comes to their scientific name, they’re not. The term “Icterid” means “the jaundiced ones,” which sounds none-too-flattering! It refers to the flashy yellow feathers that many members of the blackbird family also have.
In ancient Greece, it was believed that a yellow-feathered bird could cure jaundice and that folklore association made its way into the scientific name of this new world bird family. In addition to these bright yellow feathers, many blackbirds have extremely colorful bodies, thanks to their natural iridescence. Their black feathers can show flashes of many other colors, including ranges of blues, greens, and purples.
Now that you know a little bit about blackbirds, let’s find out more about the members of this family that make an appearance in Alaska.
- Length: 8.3-9.8 inches (21-25 centimeters)
- Weight: 1.7-2.8 ounces (47-80 grams)
- Wingspan: 14.6 inches (37 centimeters)
The Rusty blackbird is recognizable by the rusty feather edges visible on both the non-breeding males and the females. Both also have pale yellow eyes. Non-breeding males have buffy eyebrows.
Females have gray-brown bodies and dark feathers surrounding the eye, contrasting with a pale brow.
Breeding males are a glossy black all over, with a greenish iridescent sheen.
These birds love wet, boggy areas and deep boreal forests. Their nesting areas have been historically remote, making it difficult for researchers to learn about them. Rusty blackbirds will wade into shallows and feed by plunging their heads into the water to find tasty insects, larvae, snails, small fish, salamanders, and crayfish.
The Rusty blackbird is in serious trouble. This bird’s numbers declined 85 to 95% over 40 years–more than any other songbird in North America. Frustratingly, no one is certain why. Possible contributing factors include habitat loss, mercury toxicity, pesticide runoff, and climate change, causing wetlands to dry up.
Another serious problem is that blackbirds don’t share the same protections as most songbirds, and farmers are free to employ poisons and other methods intended to prevent the birds from eating their crops.
The International Rusty Blackbird Working Group is studying these birds and trying to solve the troubling problem of their decline.
- Length: 6.7-9.1 inches (17-23 centimeters)
- Weight: 1.1-2.7 ounces (32-77 grams)
- Wingspan: 12.2-15.8 inches (31-40 centimeters)
The males are striking in appearance, with glossy black bodies and red and yellow markings on the curve of each shoulder.
Females are dark brown overall, with clean white streaks, a pale breast, and often, a white eyebrow.
Red-Winged blackbirds are not found widely in Alaska, but they do breed in small areas of the state. Like many other blackbird species, Red-Winged blackbirds love watery habitats. They favor marshy areas, wetlands, and standing water. Even a small ditch of water can be enough to satisfy their craving for an aquatic oasis!
The female prefers to hide among cattails and other types of vegetation rather than showing off the way the male does.
During the breeding season, male Red-Winged blackbirds become extremely territorial, defending a harem of as many as 15 female mates against all comers–whether bird, animal, or human.
Despite their efforts, one-quarter to one-half of the chicks in a given nest will have been fathered by a different male than the one defending his nest against intruders.
Rare and Accidental Sightings
Alaska has only two breeding blackbird species, the Rusty blackbird and the Red-Winged blackbird. But numerous other blackbird family members are spotted in the state, sometimes very far from their normal ranges.
This happens for several reasons. Some birds will change their migratory paths, taking roughly, but not identically, the same route each year. A few will simply show up someplace unexpected.
Other species are expanding their ranges in new directions due to the availability of resources like food and suitable habitat. Shifts in temperature and weather due to climate change also influence migration patterns.
Blackbird species that are considered rare or accidental sightings in Alaska include:
- Brown-Headed Cowbird
- Brewer’s Blackbird
- Western Meadowlark
- Common Grackle
- Bullock’s Oriole
- Yellow-Headed Blackbird
While it’s certainly possible that you will spot one of these blackbird species in Alaska, it’s not something you should expect on your next birding trip.
If you’d like to draw blackbirds to your yard, they prefer mixed grains and seeds on platform feeders or scattered directly on the ground. It’s also a good way to ensure that blackbirds won’t bother smaller birds at your other feeders.
Alaska’s two breeding blackbird species and its variety of occasional visitors can provide you with a window into the unique lives of these fascinating birds. Their charming antics are sure to keep you entertained. Happy birding!