Migrating bird numbers continue to decline as their habitat dwindles. But there is some hope as rice farmers around Chico and in the greater Sacramento Valley create habitat for these winged visitors.
The National Audubon Society says, “Each year at least a billion birds migrate along the Pacific Flyway, but these birds are only a fraction of those that used the flyway a century ago. Habitat loss, water shortages, diminishing food sources, and climate change all threaten the birds of the Pacific Flyway.”
A headline from 2017 in Scientific American said, “Shorebird populations have shrunk by 70% across North America since 1973, and the species that breed in the Arctic are among the hardest hit.”
After two years of little winter precipitation and a disastrous spring runoff, many are calling this one of the worst droughts in California’s history. Farmers in the Sacramento Valley are receiving a trickle of the water they normally do. This means less water for these ducks, geese, waterfowl and other species to enjoy as they fly across this swath of land.
These birds migrate between Canada and South America in the spring and fall, with a popular stop being the 500,000 acres of rice fields in the Sacramento Valley.
Bloomberg reports, “Ducks and geese traveling through California’s agricultural heartland get about 50 percent of their food supplies from those flooded fields, according to John Eadie, a waterfowl biology professor at UC Davis. A lack of resources could weaken current populations and hurt their chances for survival and reproduction.”
Rice farmers this year have planted 20 percent less acreage because of the drought. That translates to tens of thousands of acres of what is normally avian habitat. It will mean more birds accessing fewer resources; which could mean malnourishment and their inability to make the trip south.
The Center for Biological Diversity’s online news site The Revelator reports, “Last year drought conditions forced too many birds into too small a space, and 60,000 perished of avian botulism that spread quickly in close quarters.” That was just for the Klamath Basin, which crosses the California-Oregon border. This year the prediction is the die-off will stretch south into California’s Central Valley.
Obviously birds have been traversing the Pacific Flyway long before white people settled these lands. They did just fine; after all California is known for having droughts for centuries. What is different is people started creating dams, building levees, paving over wetlands and converting them to agriculture. This all lead to the elimination of the birds’ natural habitat.
Today, only 5 percent of the historic wetlands in the Central Valley remain.
That is why people are trying to right the wrongs of policies that have been detrimental to migratory bird species. The Nature Conservancy in 2014 started an initiative called BirdReturns to pay famers to flood fields in the off seasons so birds would have “pop-up wetlands.” More than 100 farmers have created more than 58,000 acres of short-term habitat for shorebirds.
The California Rice Commission since then has created a similar program to entice farmers to flood fields when they wouldn’t normally do so. The agency’s website says, “Rice fields have a unique ability to provide surrogate wetland habitat during both the growing and post-harvest periods of the production cycle. The Central Valley supports 30 percent of the shorebirds and 60 percent of the ducks and geese in the entire Pacific Flyway.”
These birds don’t require deep water. It can be 2 to 5 inches to satisfy their needs.
“Many rice farmers in the Sacramento Valley of California use water to decompose their remaining rice straw after harvest. This post-harvest flooding creates over 300,000 acres of surrogate wetland habitat between October and February, the peak of migration season,” the Rice Commission explains on its website. “While this flooding is key to the survival of millions of wintering water birds, there are many species that migrate early or late and arrive in the Sacramento Valley to find little to no flooded habitat. By focusing on the shoulder season, both before and after the typical post-harvest flooding period, the foundation can provide a critical source of flooded habitat when it is most scarce and therefore most needed.”
The problem this year is that farmers have less water, so fewer are likely to participate in the program not because they aren’t willing to, but because they are unable to. What this will mean for the fall migration remains to be seen.