SciSun: Sticking Around   Leave a comment

You wouldn’t think by looking at it, but rice grows in flooded fields, called paddies. As more and more people want more and more rice (All-you-can-eat sushi!), areas that had been natural wetlands are cleared of their native species and re-planted with rice; so much wetlands that in the central part of California about 95 percent of the wetlands are now rice-only. Protected environments for water birds like ducks and migrating birds that need a place to rest, are now only a small portion of the half a million acres of wetland-type habitat in the Sacramento Valley, leaving birds few safe places to build nests and find food. And this is a very important area for the birds; the Valley is directly under the Pacific Flyway, a major migratory route that goes over 4000 miles from Alaska to Patagonia in South America. Some of those birds can really build up the frequent-flyer miles.

Thankfully, some of the rice farmers have noticed fewer and fewer birds, which they know can’t be good, and are taking steps to help create a better home for their traveling friends. By just taking a few simple steps – like changing the borders between paddies from a steep hill to more of a rounded dome, which creates what birds would see as islands among the wetlands; and adjusting water depth in the fields so short-leg birds will have just as much space as those with long legs – a small group of farmers are showing others that with a little work and a lot of thought, it’s a win-win for wildlife and people.

Now, other farmers have taken action too – over 200 farmers at last count – and with a little help from the US Governments’ new Waterbird Habitat Enhancement Program are changing and managing their farms for the benefit of all: They’ve found that releasing water from the fields at different times, rather than on a specific schedule (every year the ponds must be drained so new rice plants can be planted), creates different environments the birds are looking for; from all-the-way-under-water, to damp-and-sloshy, to very-muddy. Leaving grasses and plants on the borders of the paddies creates natural hiding and nesting areas. Keeping water in some of the fields all winter provides protected areas during a harsh time of year. The birds do their part by eating leftover plant material that the farmer would have to rake up and remove (and they contribute a lot of fertilizer to the fields. Think about it). Plus, as one farmer said who had been working the rice fields for over thirty years, recently began making changes to help birds and the environment and has already spotted birds he hadn’t seen for years: “ I like what I see.”

Avocet Cal Rice

“It’s perfect now, but the water here used to be THIS deep!!”

So while much of the natural wetlands are gone, birds still have places to rest and eat and build nests and be safe thanks to rice farmers and private land owners and other friends-of-birds. While now there’s only a few thousand acres of paddies that have been modified to benefit birds, other farmers are interested and with support from the public and help from the government, one day the California Valleys might once again be filled with wetlands; even though they are man-made, rice-filled, wetlands. And those wetlands can be filled with ducks and eagles and owls and migrating birds and other wildlife. And rice. But the birds probably don’t mind a little rice.

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