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Rice fields provide crucial refuge for migrating birds

Issue Date: November 4, 2020
By Ching Lee
Flooded rice fields such as this one in Dunnigan have become critical wildlife habitat, particularly for migrating birds.
Photo/Ching Lee

As a rice farmer in Yolo County, Kim Gallagher should be used to the sight of thousands of birds swarming her flooded fields this time of year—but when she sees a flock take off, scattering the sky with a confetti of fluttering wings, her enjoyment is clear.

"I see that multiple times every winter when I'm out here, but it's always impressive," she said. "It's so neat that we've got this food for them."

Nearly 230 wildlife species rely on Sacramento Valley rice fields for nourishment and as a rest stop, according to the California Rice Commission, including some 7 million ducks, geese and other waterfowl that migrate along the Pacific Flyway.

Rice lands have become increasingly crucial for migrating birds as they take a break and refuel during their journey. Prior to the mid-1800s, according to Ducks Unlimited, the Central Valley contained more than 4 million acres of wetlands that supported more than 20 million waterfowl in the fall and winter. Today, rice fields serve as the go-to refuge for watering birds and other wildlife, and provide some 300,000 acres of equivalent wetland habitat, the commission estimates.

"This is a surrogate wetland," Gallagher said. "They're rice fields in the summer, and then they become fields for birds, salmon and all sorts of things in the winter. I think it's a neat example of how working lands can be put to use for environmental reasons."

Because of the critical habitat that rice fields provide, the commission and conservation groups such as Audubon have worked for years to encourage programs that incentivize farmers to implement practices that offer certain environmental benefits.

Commission spokesman Jim Morris noted how the commission works with farmers to assess their land and make recommendations "to fold in the wildlife-friendly farming and still make it all work commercially."

"Fortunately with rice, you can do both," he said.

Even though there's been "significant declines" in populations across all bird species and types during the last 30 to 40 years due to habitat loss and other factors, Xerónimo Castañeda, conservation project manager for Audubon California, said waterfowl and wetland birds have been the exception, "in big part" because of programs involving farmers "who see the value in providing that habitat."

"That's a glimmer of hope in my eyes," he said. "It's a win-win; it's a good example of how things can coexist."

Working as partners has been key, he said, because not only has it brought together "folks who maybe have not traditionally come to the table," but it allows farmers and conservation groups to implement plans that would work for everybody and that would benefit all sides.

For example, the partners have had to figure out how much water farmers need for rice decomposition in the fall, whether those water levels would work for different birds and if small adjustments can be made to create different types of habitat during different parts of the season to benefit different bird species.

"That couldn't have been accomplished without having these dialogues with rice growers," Castañeda said.

Gallagher said even though she only recently started participating in conservation programs, as she's been doing her own conservation work, it helps "having some financial help for the cost of flooding up the field" and maintaining that water all winter, "which is a pretty big cost." She said it also helps to have information about proper timing and water depth to benefit more birds.

She said she appreciates the flexibility of the programs in allowing her to drain her fields on time so she can work the ground to start spring planting. This flexibility not only allows her to participate in the programs, she said, but it "makes everybody happy to have the ability to tailor what fits best for you," as "everybody's circumstances are different."

"I think the nice thing about these programs is that there's been opportunities for farmers to make their own decisions," she said, "and having that freedom to decide what works best for them has been a huge benefit for everybody."

Bird migration begins as early as July, when many shorebirds start traveling through the Pacific Flyway, a major highway for birds as they make their way from their nesting place in the Arctic and Alaska to South America, Castañeda said. Waterfowl come through in October and could stay as late as March before they move on.

The grain left behind in fields after harvest provides an important food source for waterfowl, he said. Water used to decompose rice stubble also creates a smorgasbord of insects, worms and other invertebrates for shorebirds and ducks, he noted. More recent studies have explored how flooded rice fields could also benefit fish such as juvenile salmon, he added.

"This is obviously one of the most special things about this part of the flyway and this part of the state," Castañeda said of Sacramento Valley rice country.

Though it's been "a long process" and "a lot of trial and error" to develop solutions with growers to help different species, Castañeda said he thinks "it's pretty dialed in." The hope now, he said, is to "take that framework and move it over to other habitat types," such as grasslands and forests.

Yolo County farmer Sean Doherty emphasized the importance of agriculture and conservation groups working jointly to advocate for birds and the benefits of rice farming.

"We speak with a bigger voice and that allows some of these changes and some of these beneficial programs to happen," he said.

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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