The floodplain of California’s Central Valley is rich with streamside forests of willows, cottonwoods, oaks, and sycamores. Each summer these forests are alive with the sounds of singing songbirds that have flown here from Latin America to breed. These same forests support other songbirds through the winter! Species that nest in Alaska and Canada fly some 2,400 miles each year to winter in the Central Valley’s riverside forests. For their survival, these native birds depend on finding enough healthy habitat.

Only a fraction – less than 10% – of California’s original riparian lands remain today. The rest has been lost to development, stream channelization, logging, grazing, and water diversion that followed settlement in the West. Point Blue’s terrestrial songbird work aims to help ensure that habitats remaining along interior rivers will persist and even recover! We have carried out songbird monitoring studies at key locations throughout California, to inform conservation. Today, with a changing climate compounding the stresses on riparian zones, restoration is a foremost priority.

Restoration Works

The good news: our records show that restoration works! On the Sacramento River, California’s largest river, The Nature Conservancy and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, along with many partners, embarked on a project to restore 100 miles of riverside forest. Point Blue joined the team to ensure that this effort would provide the best possible habitat for birds. Bird numbers increased dramatically, approaching the numbers found in nearby undisturbed forests. These successes have led to new ideas about how to design the plantings of trees, shrubs, and grasses to help birds and other wildlife.

Return of an Endangered Species

In 2005, the endangered Least Bell’s Vireo successfully nested in the Central Valley for the first time in 50 years! Point Blue biologists, working with staff of the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge and with River Partners, discovered a pair of the vireos feeding their young in streamside vegetation that had been planted just a few years earlier. Restoring our floodplains will help the recovery of threatened birds, keep common species common, and provide benefits to salmon, rabbits, beetles, and other wildlife that depend on floodplain forests. It may also reduce future regulatory conflicts, by aiding species recovery and keeping species from becoming listed in the first place.

Point Blue biologists are currently monitoring the return of Yellow-billed Cuckoos to riparian habitat in the Central Valley.  Learn more more about our work with Yellow-billed Cuckoos.

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Private Lands

Private lands are key to this formula: they hold a great majority of California’s remaining riverside habitat. Working with Partners In Flight, we have published practical guides for songbird conservation in the Central Valley. Landowners can use a set of practical steps for “bringing the birds back.” These range from leaving some dead trees standing, as homes for cavity-nesters, to planting corridors of vegetation that connect isolated patches of habitat. Results can be rapid, as measured by the presence of Tree Swallows, Yellow Warblers, and other native birds that are common in healthy riparian vegetation.

Visit our Resources and Recommendations pages to learn more about how to manage your land for biodiversity.

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Healthy Habitat “Architecture” 

Riparian birds use every part of the habitat – some prefer the canopy for nesting and foraging while others specialize on shrubs or the ground. A healthy riparian habitat therefore contains a mixture of plant species, sizes, shapes, and ages.

A mature riparian forest has a low layer of groundcover (understory), an in­termediate layer of shrubs and small trees (midstory), and a high canopy of trees and vines (Figure x). This “layering effect” provides an assortment of feeding and nesting locations for a variety of birds and other wildlife. Thus, a healthy riparian habitat should have high wildlife diversity and abundance.

Visit our Resources and Recommendations pages to learn more about how to manage your land for biodiversity.

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