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For Migratory Bird Habitat in the Sacramento Valley

Teaming up with Rice Growers

Catherine Hickey

Rice grower Josh Sheppard, PRBO biologist Khara Strum, and Alex Hartman of Audubon California. PRBO photo.
Migratory birds that depend upon wetlands in California’s Central Valley will soon benefit from having thousands of acres enhanced as habitat—on working rice farms! In August 2011, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) launched a federally funded pilot program in the rice-growing region of the Sacramento Valley.

This pilot program has been implemented on agricultural lands within Glenn and Colusa counties, and it draws directly from a successful collaboration between the California Rice Commission and the Migratory Bird Conservation Partnership (consisting of PRBO Conservation Science, Audubon California, and The Nature Conservancy).

The new federal program, called the California Migratory Bird Habitat Initiative, supports conservation practices for rice farms—practices designed to provide habitat primarily for migratory, wetland-dependent birds.

Shorebirds and some waterfowl generally require shallowly flooded habitat (two to four inches of water) during non-breeding seasons. However, in the Central Valley—a major part of the great Pacific Flyway—there is very little shallow-flooded, unvegetated habitat available during shorebirds’ north- and south-bound migrations. In winter the water standing in most rice fields in the Valley is too deep for most shorebirds.

With the new NRCS funding, more than 70 farmers will increase the amount of shallow-water habitat and accessible food resources that birds need to complete their migrations and survive the winter. Other conservation practices in the new initiative concern nesting habitats for diverse birds: farmers will modify their levees to enhance them as habitat for breeding shorebirds and waterfowl.

Many of the practices that this program supports have been developed through a partnership among the California Rice Commission, a small group of rice growers, and the Migratory Bird Conservation Partnership. Biologists have participated in many workshops and one-on-one conversations with growers, where we listen to their interests and discuss conservation.

We have also partnered with many rice growers over the last three years to evaluate the new practices in the field. The result is a set of practices that growers themselves helped define and test. We believe this is key to the success of our conservation efforts and establishing the Migratory Bird Habitat Initiative in California.

Watching as Birds Respond
Long-billed Curlews are among the migratory birds that will gain habitat on farmlands. Photo by Tom Grey.

In the coming seasons, staff from PRBO and Audubon California will visit with rice farmers and provide feedback on how their new practices are benefiting migratory birds. We have already seen that our one-on-one interactions with growers can increase their enthusiasm for engaging actively. By also working with willing landowners to directly measure bird response to the new practices, the Migratory Bird Conservation Partnership will help the NRCS fine-tune the practices to maximize the benefits for migratory birds on working farmlands.

We congratulate NRCS, the California Rice Commission, and growers for taking full advantage of this significant opportunity. Growers piloting the California Migratory Bird Habitat Initiative have signed up over 20,000 acres for approximately $2.7 million in conservation payments through the Wildlife Habitat Incentives and Environmental Quality Incentives programs. These and other programs under the federal Farm Bill are crucial for achieving long-term conservation on farmlands throughout the United States.