WOODLAND, Calif. -- It's an infrequent sound these days -- the high-pitched cries of hundreds of newborn blackbirds in California's Sacramento Valley.
"It's something that I hear very infrequently -- almost rarely anymore," says Bob Meese, an environmental scientist.
Meese has spent the last decade studying the tri-colored blackbird, which once numbered in the millions. The decline, he says, is unprecedented.
According to surveys coordinated by Meese and his team at the University of California, Davis, the state was home to 400,000 tri-colored blackbirds in 2008.
Today, there are only 145,000 -- a 64 percent loss in just six years.
"There are parts of the state where the birds seem to be disappearing altogether,'' said Meese.
Meese is now catching the birds so he can tag them and track their movements. He believes the birds' natural habitats are being increasingly turned into farmland and vineyards which rely on pesticides that kill off the very insects the birds feast on.
"If they do not have enough insects in their diet, they simply cannot form eggs," he says.
So Meese is trying to convince growers to give up pesticides. At this organic rice field, the tri-colored blackbirds are able to collect insect larvae to feed their young.
"The blackbirds could act as a natural insecticide,'' says Meese.
"If we can reproduce this specific set of circumstances in enough places in California, I think the species has a future here."
Unless that idea takes flight, Meese says, California's iconic bird could be lost forever.