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Birds still thrive in managed wetlands and agricultural fields.

California: the Central Valley

Catherine Hickey


Black-necked Stilt. Photo © Stuart Mackay.
The geographic heart of California is the 400-mile long Central Valley. Intensively farmed and subject to increasing urban development, the Valley has lost more than 90% of its original wetlands. Yet abundant wetland bird populations still thrive in the region's managed wetlands, agricultural fields, and evaporation ponds, which have replaced the natural habitat. Over 60% of Pacific Flyway waterfowl winter in or migrate through the Valley. In winter and spring, the Central Valley supports more shorebirds than any other inland locale in western North America. Two sites have been designated Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network Sites of International Importance (supporting over 100,000 shorebirds): the Grasslands Ecological Area in the San Joaquin Basin and more than 500,000 acres of ricelands and wetlands in the Sacramento Valley (see Observer 134, fall 2003).

In the Central Valley, the primary partnership for wetland and other habitat conservation is the Central Valley Habitat Joint Venture. CVHJV partners are investing millions of dollars in wetlands conservation projects on public and private lands to restore waterfowl populations. PRBO provides technical expertise, emphasizing broader conservation objectives that maximize habitat value for all wetland dependent birds, starting with shorebirds.

PRBO formed and chairs the Central Valley Shorebird Working Group that functions as a technical subcommittee of the CVHJV. It currently is helping update the JV's Implementation Strategy with shorebird objectives and conservation strategies.

In May and June 2003, PRBO and collaborators in the Central Valley Shorebird Working Group conducted the first-ever Valley-wide breeding shorebird survey. This survey filled an important gap in our understanding of shorebird status, distribution, and habitat use in the Valley. The results will guide the establishment of breeding shorebird population and habitat objectives for the CVHJV.

Essential to improved conservation is assessing whether our efforts are actually helping bird populations. For the first time in California, the CVHJV will evaluate major federal and state habitat conservation programs for private lands, for how well they support migratory and resident bird populations. PRBO will carry out this work beginning in April 2004.


"The Central Valley Habitat Joint Venture is considered by many to be one of the most successful in the United States. Three primary reasons for this are the collective strength of our partnerships, our commitment to identify waterfowl habitat objectives through the application of sound science, and our focused efforts to deliver waterfowl habitat in a well-defined landscape. The scope of our Joint Venture interests has recently expanded to embrace the NABCI goal of 'delivering the full spectrum of bird conservation through regionally based, biologically driven, landscape-oriented partnerships.' We will continue to rely a great deal on PRBO's scientific expertise and credibility to help integrate specific habitat needs of other wetland-dependent avian species into our future planning and conservation activities."--Robert Shaffer, Coordinator, Central Valley Habitat Joint Venture

We have made substantial progress integrating conservation needs of not only shorebirds but also landbirds into the CVHJV's goals and strategies. This productive relationship holds very encouraging opportunities to benefit all bird species and their habitats in the Central Valley.

American Avocet. Photo © Stuart Mackay.

On a personal note, through my work in the Central Valley I have developed some of my most rewarding professional relationships. I admire the commitment of our partners to use science in guiding their conservation efforts, the value they place on partnerships, and their dedication to the resource. They are truly the heart of wetlands conservation in California.

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*The Central Valley is within the Southern Pacific Shorebird Region, one of 11 planning regions of the U.S. Shorebird Conservation Plan. PRBO, with many collaborators, authored the Southern Pacific Shorebird Conservation Plan (see sidebar) and hosts the first full-time, multi-year position devoted to conservation within a U.S. shorebird planning region.