Rice Farmers Support Migratory Bird Habitat Initiative
Beginning this fall, and continuing through to 2014, rice farmers participating in the Migratory Bird Habitat Initiative (MBHI) will work with the Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS) of the US Department of Agriculture on a pilot project aimed at benefiting waterfowl and shorebirds by adapting certain rice production practices. Seventy farmers in Colusa and Glenn County, California, have signed contracts to support the MBHI in a project which is the culmination of many years of research and cooperation between rice farmers and conservationists, represented by Audubon California, PRBO Conservation Science, the NRCS and the California Rice Commission.
Speaking on behalf of the California Rice Commission, Paul Buttner noted that they have worked together in testing practices that appear to make a difference to the birds, while at the same time being acceptable to rice farmers. Under the new agreement, rice farmers will extend the time period that their fields are flooded, either starting earlier or draining the fields later, thereby accommodating the birds’ breeding and migratory needs. Also the depth of the water will be adjusted, specifically at agreed upon times in the season. NRCS Assist State Conservationist, Alan Forkey, explained that generally shorebirds and waterfowl prefer a habitat of between 2 and 6 inches deep, but rice fields are usually flooded deeper than that. This will be adjusted, and instead of draining the fields in January, farmers have agreed to keep them flooded for longer and drop the water levels more gradually.
To accommodate the nesting requirements of the birds, levees between fields will be modified, with sloped levees being flattened to provide a better nesting surface and allow easier access to the water for chicks. Some farmers have also agreed to provide artificial nesting structures. A number of the proposed changes will not only benefit the birds, but will be to the farmers’ benefit as well. For the farmers who have agreed to use portions of their fields as wetlands, incoming water will have the opportunity to warm up a bit before running on to the young rice plants which will be beneficial for them, plus longer periods of flooding the fields will help to degrade the rice plants after harvesting, making it easier to clear the fields.
The cooperation of farmers in implementing the pilot project has been very encouraging, and the Migratory Bird Conservation Partnership will be measuring the results of the MBHI with a view to extending the project to other areas of importance to migratory birds.