By Steve Phenicie
An organization exists for practically anything you can think of, and Rusty Blackbirds are no exception. Ever hear of the International Rusty Blackbird Working Group? This group of scientists has been around since 2005 and exists for a good reason—in recent decades populations of “Rusties” have declined sharply, and the reason is difficult to pin down.
The North American Breeding Bird Survey estimates that populations have dropped 90 percent since 1966. Loss of wet woodland habitat through drainage, clearcutting, and conversion to agriculture is one possible reason—particularly in the southeastern U.S. where some 80 percent of the population winters. Historically, the hunting of beavers across North America may also have reduced habitat by diminishing the number of beaver ponds, but the resurgence of beaver populations may be having a positive effect. Rusty Blackbirds in northeastern North America have been recorded with high mercury counts, which could be contributing to their decline there.
The bird’s remote breeding grounds in the hard-to-access boreal forests of the far north, from Newfoundland to Alaska and lapping into New York and northern New England, make it hard to study. No other blackbird has such a northerly breeding distribution. In the winter it is found from Iowa and southern New England south to the Gulf of Mexico. There and during migration it usually hangs out in swampy places, wading in shallow water at the edges of wooded streams. Rusties also forage in open fields and cattle feedlots with other blackbirds.
The Working Group tries to get a better handle on this by organizing birders to report on the birds during specific times of the year, particularly during spring migration. Among its activities are outfitting birds with monitoring devices on their breeding grounds and along western Lake Erie in Ohio and Michigan where they stop during migration. Closer to home, Savannah-based Ogeechee Audubon, in cooperation with the Working Group, monitors Rusty Blackbirds on the campus of a private school. (For the full story on that, see this blog post)
The majority of this species’ diet is insects, including aquatic ones such as caddisflies, mayflies, dragonflies, and water beetles, plus land insects such as grasshoppers and others. It also eats snails, crustaceans, small fish, small salamanders, seeds, waste grain, and a few berries.
It sometimes nests in small, loose colonies but more often in isolated pairs. The female typically lays four or five eggs that are pale blue-green, spotted with brown and gray. The nest site is in dense cover, usually in conifers or in shrubs. Typically it is only a few feet above the water or ground, but it can be up to 20 feet high. The nest, built by the female, is a bulky open cup of twigs and grass. Incubation is by the female only. Both parents feed the nestlings, and the young leave the nest about 11-14 days after hatching.
Around Atlanta, some good spots for Rusties are Piedmont Park, Grant Park, Decatur Cemetery, Cochran Shoals, Constitution Lakes, and, in smaller numbers, at Zonolite Park. Anywhere with flooded woodlands or large blackbird flocks has the potential for them. The name "Rusty" applies to the colors of fall birds, but it could also describe the rusty-hinge sound of its creaking song.
Empowering Students to Drive Change: Georgia Audubon and Georgia Tech Join Forces to Prevent Bird Strikes and Build Habitat
By Dottie Head, Director of Communications
Students at the Georgia Institute of Technology are creating a conservation legacy on the university’s Atlanta campus. Through a partnership forged between Georgia Audubon and Georgia Tech, students, professors, and staff are working collectively to ensure the campus is a safe and welcoming place for resident and migratory birds.
The partnership began in 2017 when Adam Betuel, Georgia Audubon’s director of conservation, connected with Emily Weigel, Ph.D., an academic professional in the School of Biological Sciences. Dr. Weigel, who also serves as director of internships, was able to connect Georgia Audubon with the Georgia Tech intern program, resulting in a series of interns who have been helping with Project Safe Flight ever since.
“The interns have been a tremendous help with all aspects of Project Safe Flight, including managing the database, identifying birds killed by collisions, and coordinating student volunteer teams to monitor and patrol buildings on the Georgia Tech campus,” says Betuel.
Soon after, Georgia Audubon became involved with the Kendeda Building for Innovative Sustainable Design on the Georgia Tech campus through a chance introduction. “We were attending the annual Summer Solstice event at Southface Institute, when Linda DiSantis introduced us to the building architects,” says Betuel. “As they were telling us about this amazing sustainable building, I commented on how it would be a shame if it was a threat to birds.” This casual meeting sparked additional conversations and ultimately resulted in the inclusion of special bird-friendly glass in the building design. It was a timely introduction, says Betuel, because retrofitting buildings to make them bird friendly can be expensive and less aesthetically pleasing compared to when bird-friendly glass is incorporated during the initial design phase.
Located on the Georgia Tech Campus, the Kendeda Building for Innovative Design is the first academic and research building in the Southeast to pursue Living Building Challenge 3.1 certification—the world’s most ambitious green building program—which aligns with Georgia Tech’s longstanding vision for its campus to serve as an educational center for innovation that transforms future generations.
Through the Kendeda project, Georgia Audubon was introduced to Steve Place, a horticulturist and the Georgia Tech associate responsible for the landscape surrounding the Kendeda building as well as an eightacre section of the Eco-Commons, located nearby. This thoughtfully designed greenspace will ultimately contain more than 600 new trees and tens of thousands of perennials, shrubs, ferns and grasses following what was originally a naturally occurring stream.
Place’s role is that of facilitator, connection maker, partner, and advocate of the students. “What I try to do in everything I’m involved with is to include the students as much as possible,” he says.
Steve works with three student groups—Students Organized for Sustainability (SOS), Bioengineering and Bioscience Unified Graduate Students (BBUGS), and a Scouts group—that are doing everything from collision work, to landscape design, to choosing native plants, and restoring a small forested area on campus.
The SOS group is charged with taking care of the community garden and working with Steve to help choose plants and design installation at the Kendeda Center. They also help with maintenance.
BBUGS is currently working with a group of freshmen to raise money to install a pollinator garden in the Eco-commons. The graduate students are mentoring the freshmen in grant writing to raise funds for these projects so that they can influence and promote the outcomes that they want to see on campus.
Finally, the Scouts group is working on a habitat restoration project to restore a forest fragment that is full of invasive species. “It’s a perfect partnership,” says Place. “I provide logistical help—hauling ivy, helping with plant ID, etc.—and the students pull the ivy. We also discuss regenerative ecology and what plants we want to reintroduce to the area. In two years, when this restoration project is complete, the area will be a safe harbor for birds and will complement the nearby Kendeda Center and Eco-Commons. It will be a great legacy for these students.
Steve has also spearheaded a Bird-safe Glass Committee, with representation from the three groups. “Bird collisions were clearly a concern across campus that different student groups have talked about, and I was able to bring together a group to look at and address this problem,” says Place. The Bird-safe Glass Committee is working to identify the worst bird hazards on campus and write grants to raise money to purchase and install film to treat these problem windows on campus.
“The students have been monitoring bird strikes for a while now and have enlisted landscape services and the Georgia Tech police department to report dead birds,” says Place. “We have a Vertical Integration Program (VIP) made up of students that do different work, including water quality, air quality, energy use, and wildlife. The wildlife group has done a lot of early morning monitoring of buildings, and I was able to plug them in with Adam and his existing data.”
Steve is rightfully proud of his work. “The EcoCommons used to be 90 percent parking lot, and now all of it has been converted to greenspace. We are planting hundreds of trees every year,” he says. “This a huge commitment to creating this habitat and making sure it will last well beyond our time at Georgia Tech.”
Ultimately both the grounds of the Kendada Building and the Eco-Commons will be certified as a Georgia Audubon Wildlife Sanctuary. Gabe Andrle, habitat program manager for Georgia Audubon, has been brought in to consult with students on native plants and the birds that use them. Gabe and Adam led a bird walk on campus earlier this year with students and faculty to begin assessing what birds are currently using the campus habitat and the steps taking place to make campus more bird-safe. Georgia Audubon has been a great partner, says Place.
In recent months, Georgia Audubon has also connected with Dr. Diana Hicks, a professor in the School of Public Policy at Georgia Tech specializing in metrics for science and technology policy. In consultation with Georgia Audubon, Dr. Hicks is offering a year-long course in the School of Public Policy which, among other topics, will be addressing possible public policies related to bird-friendly design and how Georgia Audubon could potentially move forward with legislation to ensure future buildings incorporate bird-friendly design elements. Adam is serving as an advisor for this group and will be meeting with them throughout the year.
“We’re very excited about this partnership and the great work for birds that is taking place on Georgia Tech’s campus,” says Betuel. “Through the work of all of the student groups and with the help of professors and others staff, there is a lot of really substantial progress being made to make the campus a safe and attractive place for birds.”
We are getting lots of calls from people about Pine Siskins at their feeders and concerns ranging from spread of disease to frustration with the sheer volume of seed that these little birds eat. Here are the answers to some of the questions we are hearing.
Why are there so many Pine Siskins this year? - It's an irruption year. Each year, Georgia has a few eBird reports of Pine Siskins, but every few years we have an irruption year and large numbers of siskins migrate to Georgia for the winter. Long story short, it's primarily linked to seed production in pines and other conifers in the boreal forest, but this year Georgia is seeing HUGE numbers of birds.
They are eating me out of house and home. What can I do? - There's not much you can do to discourage these hungry birds, and, as you may have experienced, they can empty your feeders in a matter of minutes. But if you'd like to discourage them, try feeding larger seeds, cracked corn, or even suet. If all else fails, take down your feeders for a few weeks. They should begin dispersing over the next month as they return to their breeding grounds further north. Personally, we prefer to enjoy them while they're here and know that they'll be moving on soon. In the meantime, we’re stocking up on bird food!
I've heard Pine Siskins can spread disease, such as salmonella and finch eye disease. How can I prevent this? - With bird species like Pine Siskins (and House Finches) that travel in large flocks, it is easy for a single sick bird to spread disease to others because of the sheer volume of birds. If you notice an ill siskin or other bird at your feeder (puffy appearance, lethargic, sunken or swollen eyes), the best thing you can do is to take down your feeder, clean it with a mild bleach solution, and keep the feeder down for a few weeks to allow any diseased birds to disperse. Otherwise, just be sure to keep your feeders clean to minimize the spread of bacteria and other diseases that can make birds ill. If you have a sick bird, you can find a list of wildlife rehabilitators on our website.
By Lauren Gingerella, President, Oconee Rivers Audubon Society
The North Oconee River flows through the heart of Athens. The forested river corridor provides important habitat for many wildlife species and a stage for the songs of Louisiana Waterthrushes and Summer Tanagers yards from downtown and the campus of the University of Georgia. A linear park system with a network of multi-use greenway trails connects the Athens community to this wonderful greenspace. It is here, along the North Oconee River Greenway, where the Oconee Rivers Audubon Society (ORAS) set out to build a bird-friendly native plant demonstration garden.
Birds need all the help they can get right now. A 2019 study published in the journal Science reported a net loss of nearly three billion birds in North America since 1970. Some of the species with the greatest population declines are common species we may see every day at our backyard bird feeder. Though this is depressing, there are easy activities we can do in our everyday lives to support bird conservation. One of the best ways to help is to add native plants to your yard or garden.
Many of you reading this are already aware of the benefits of planting natives for birds, such as more nutritious food resources, shelter, and resilient landscapes against climate change. However, more people need to be aware of the importance of native plants to help increase avian populations. ORAS wanted to target members of the diverse Athens community not typically involved in bird conservation and native plant restoration. By placing the demonstration garden along the greenway, we are able to engage audiences who use the greenway for exercising, commuting to work or school, fishing, and wildlife viewing.
In January 2020, ORAS was awarded a Burke Grant through the National Audubon Society’s Plants for Birds program to create the high-profile demonstration garden. Our ultimate goals are to emphasize the importance of native plants for wildlife, encourage community members to choose native plants in their home and garden, and create a gathering space to engage the community in conservation efforts. The garden plans consist of more than 1,500 native plants, interpretive signage, a bench, and a small water feature.
The Athens-Clarke County’s (ACC) Sustainability Office enthusiastically partnered with ORAS on this project. The location of the garden at the corner of Dr. Martin Luther King Parkway and North Avenue fits nicely into ACC’s plans to restore habitat along the North Oconee River corridor. The garden restores approximately 15,000 square feet of wildlife habitat in an area historically fallow and often plagued by invasive plant species. Now, this sunny patch of land will be a mosaic of native prairie and meadow perennials and grasses.
The COVID-19 pandemic added an unexpected challenge to the project. The anticipated springtime site preparation and plantings were delayed until summer and fall. Our vision of large volunteer events was scaled down to a dozen people socially distanced from another. Hand-sanitizer was readily available on workdays, and dedicated volunteers wore masks while shoveling mulch in excessive heat and humidity. By mid-November, the garden was fully planted, and all that still needs to be added are the bench, water feature, and interpretive sign.
Students from the Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia designed interpretive signage and helped create a list of native plant species. The sign highlights the importance and connection of native plants to birds and other pollinators, and describes the ecological importance of Piedmont prairie habitat. A QR code to access a Spanish translation is on the sign as well, so we can engage as many members of our community as possible.
ORAS purchased many of the native plants from Beech Hollow Farms in Lexington, Georgia, as well as the State Botanical Garden of Georgia. Volunteers, ACC staff, and members of Lilly Branch Audubon Society added more than 30 species of perennials and grasses to the garden primarily as plugs and pint-sized plantings. We are looking forward to seeing the results of our efforts over the next few years as the garden grows, matures, and shows off all its flowering glory.
Next time you are in Athens, grab your binoculars and go for a walk along the North Oconee River Greenway. In ORAS’ new Plants for Birds demonstration garden, you may now be able to spot Indigo Buntings, Field Sparrows, or Eastern Kingbirds and be inspired to add native plants to your own landscape.
Reviewed by Steve Phenicie
If you’re looking for a biography about John James Audubon, the man for whom the Audubon network is named, you’ll have many choices. One of them is by our own Gregory Nobles, a Georgia Audubon member and Master Birder and a professor emeritus of history at Georgia Tech.
Nobles admires Audubon’s contributions to art and science, but the book does not back away from the man’s shortcomings and character flaws either. “He could be more than a little loose with the truth about his own life,” Nobles notes. One of his more intriguing fabrications is a tale about going hunting with Daniel Boone, which was entirely made up, although an elderly Boone once turned him down.
Our author tells us not to take all of Audubon’s stories literally, but we should take them seriously because it tells us what kind of a man Audubon was. Nobles says he tried to provide us with a different look at Audubon than the others, taking a more topical approach. Still, I think the book might have benefited by including a timeline of Audubon’s life, particularly for those of us who haven’t read any of the others. Here are some of the facts about the man:
Audubon had nothing to do with the founding of the National Audubon Society–it came along in 1905.
Greg Nobles obviously knows his subject because this book provides a great deal of insight into Audubon’s life and is certainly worth a read. And don’t forget: The author is a member of the Georgia Audubon “home team.”