Pacific Flyway Migratory Birds Assisted by Rice Farmers
Following the introduction of rice as a food crop during the California gold rush, farmers reportedly battled to find the ideal growing conditions for decades before discovering the right combination of terrain and rice varieties which has turned California into the largest producer of medium and short gain japonica (sushi) rice in the United States. Its annual production of more than two million tons of rice makes it the largest rice producer in the nation and contributes over $1.3 billion to California’s economy. However, all of this success has come at a cost to the birdlife that depends on the wetlands that have now been claimed as rice paddies.
The good news is that more than 165 rice farmers have committed to the implementation of a plan to rectify this situation, and working along with the US Natural Resources Conservation Service a system of islands and suitable habitats will be built to provide migratory birds with a place to rest, feed and hopefully breed. An amount of $2 million has been allocated to fund the project in an effort to build up bird populations that have been declining at an alarming rate. California’s Sacramento Valley forms part of the Pacific Flyway which stretches from Patagonia to Alaska, so the planned improvements will make a significant difference to the welfare of migrating birds which already deal with a perilous journey each time they migrate. In addition to building new habitats and islands, the farmers are adapting their irrigation methods for their paddies. Instead of draining the fields completely in winter in preparation for the new season, the farmers will drain the fields slowly, leaving some partially flooded to provide feeding a nesting grounds for water birds, thereby aiding conservation efforts.
Despite the fact that rice paddies now cover up to 95 percent of the native wetland area of Sacramento Valley, dozens of migratory water bird species can be seen here, including American avocets, cinnamon-teal ducks, dunlins, dowitchers and black-necked stilts. Scientists will need at least two years of monitoring and data gathering to determine the success rate of the project, but with the willing cooperation of local farmers, they are hopeful that the new measures, which require only a fraction of the farming land, will result in a significant increase in water bird populations.