The recent sharp decline in the number of tricolors was highlighted on national television on Saturday, June 28th, 2014 on CBS Evening News. The story, by CBS News reporter Bigad Shaban, was recorded on Thursday, June 26th at the Conaway Ranch in Yolo County. The piece features research by U.C. Davis avian ecologist Dr. Bob Meese and cites the link between widespread and chronic reproductive failures to insufficient insects in the diets of breeding birds.
An article in the Fresno Bee highlights the plight of the tricolored blackbird and efforts being made to conserve at-risk colonies in silage grain fields and the recent, on-going severe population decline. It also mentions the 2014 Statewide Survey as an attempt to get a current population estimate.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has asked Dr. Bob Meese to coordinate the 2014 Tricolored Blackbird Statewide Survey. Monica Iglecia of Audubon California is assisting with Survey coordination.
The Statewide Survey will be conducted over three days - April 18th through the 20th, 2014.
The Statewide Survey relies upon county coordinators as well as volunteer participants to help to survey both historical colony locations as well as to survey in appropriate regions for new, previously undocumented colony locations and to estimate the number of birds at occupied sites. No prior experience is necessary to participate in the survey and any level of commitment, big or small, is welcome to help to make this year's survey as complete as possible.
Owens Creek, a tricolored blackbird breeding location in eastern Merced County, at the NW corner of Cunningham Road and Childs Avenue, was converted to an orchard in autumn, 2013, likely permanently eliminating this as a breeding location. Local landowners had informed U.C. Davis ecologist Dr. Bob Meese that upwards of 50,000 birds or more had been breeding there consistently since at least the 1960's and breeding had continued until 2011, when the landowners changed the management to conditions unfavorable to tricolor breeding. Tricolors had within the past decade been breeding in Merced County in increasing numbers, so the loss of this important site, which is surrounded by open pasture and has a dairy nearby and a creek running through it, is a setback for conservation efforts and reduces the number of breeding locations that are surrounded by productive foraging habitats.
This publication by U.C. Davis ecologist Bob Meese, which appeared in the journal Western Birds in summer, 2013, summarizes the results of 6 years of field work designed to evaluate the role of insect abundance on tricolored blackbird reproductive success.
A total of 47 colonies was studied and relative insect abundance and reproductive success at each was estimated. In only rare instances was reproductive success estimated to be 1 young/nest or greater, and in each case higher reproductive success was correlated with unusually high insect abundance in foraging habitats surrounding colonies.
Tricolor reproduction appears to be food-limited and few locations in the Central Valley appear to have the abundance of insects necessary to support reproduction by a colonial insectivorous bird species.
The most recent statewide surveys documented a rapid decline in the number of Tricolored Blackbirds, from about 400,000 in 2008 to about 250,000 3 years later. Annual monitoring and research into the relationship between reproductive success (RS) and insect abundance has shown a chronic low RS in dozens of colonies studied since 2007 and relatively high RS only in instances when colonies were surrounded by landscapes with unusually high insect abundance. Thus, the recent decline in the numbers of tricolors is believed to be due to chronic low RS (the number of birds recruiting into the population has been much smaller than the number dying) due to insufficient insect abundance. The decline in abundance is seen in the sizes of the largest colonies (Figure 1) from 2005 – 2013, where as recently as 2006 the average of the 5 largest colonies was nearly 72,000 birds, but in 2013 was less than 12,000 birds. And this decline in the sizes of the largest colonies comes at a time when researchers have documented a large number of colonies in new locations (Figure 2), nearly 100 since 2005. All else being equal, such a rapid increase in the number of known colony locations should have resulted in an increase in the population estimate, so the rapid decline in abundance is even more alarming. The next statewide survey, scheduled for April, 2014, will help to quantify the rate of decrease in the numbers of tricolors and provide a current statewide population estimate.
The Los Angeles Times and Sacramento Bee have each featured a story on Tricolored Blackbirds, the Times on June 20th and the Bee on June 21st, 2013. Both stories summarize the results of the work of the many participants in the 2008 and 2011 Statewide Surveys and highlight the continuing rapid decline in abundance of the species throughout California. Due to chronic low reproductive success since 2007 and a variety of other factors, the number of tricolors has been falling rapidly and the 2014 Statewide Survey will be an essential barometer of the species' health.
The southern California tricolor population, already reduced to less than 6,000 birds (2011 statewide survey), has fared poorly in 2013 due to a series of events at locations that recently supported the region’s largest colonies. In northern Los Angeles County, two sites, Holiday Lake and Fairmont Reservoir, are not supporting tricolor colonies in 2013. Holiday Lake was drained in March, 2013 to allow the Los Angeles County Fire Department to burn the senescent cattails. As of the third week of May, 2013 the basin has not been refilled and remains nearly empty; thus, there is no nesting habitat for tricolors at Holiday Lake this year. Fairmont Reservoir, approximately 10 miles to the southeast of Holiday Lake, is dry and does not provide nesting habitat. Thus, tricolor breeding at both L.A. County locations is prevented by an absence of nesting habitat this year.
Chris Wilson, the Director of Conservation Science at the Santa Lucia Conservancy, is placing radio transmitters on breeding tricolored blackbirds on the Santa Lucia Preserve, a private reserve in Monterey County. His research, which started in May, 2012 has found that tricolors on the preserve forage extensively upon the caterpillars of oak moths (Phryganidia californica) high in oak trees, which may be the first time that arboreal foraging has been documented in the species. His work has also shown that breeding tricolors may suddenly cease breeding and move to a different nearby breeding colony. Chris will continue his research in 2013.