When you picture rice fields, you might think of small tiers of hand-planted stalks rising up a hillside in the Far East.
But what you might NOT envision are rice fields right here in California that support a wide range of species that call these wetlands home. The habitat created by rice fields is invaluable to wildlife, especially migrating birds that stop to take a break in the Central Valley to refuel and rest on their yearly migration along the Pacific Flyway.
As Californians increase water conservation during the state’s drought (read our previous blog post), allocating this precious resource to rice farming provides multiple benefits to people, animals, and the environment.
Why Are Rice Fields So Helpful?
In the Central Valley, once rich in native wetlands, “270.5 thousand acres of palustrine vegetated wetlands were lost between 1939 and the mid-1980’s.” (1) The reduction in wetlands was mainly due to agriculture and human developments with an unfortunate side effect of reducing waterfowl populations.
This is where rice farming steps in to make a difference. Even with the disappearing native wetlands, the Central Valley still supports one of the highest concentrations of water birds, including nearly 3 million ducks, 1 million geese, and 350,000 shorebirds. (2) It is said to be the most important wintering area on the Pacific Flyway, hosting about 60 percent of the entire population.(3) And, in the Sacramento Valley alone, rice fields provide 85 percent of the habitat available to wintering birds. (2)
In fact, 50 species of water birds and nearly 230 wildlife species (some threatened or endangered) find permanent or temporary homes in California rice fields.(4)
When migrating birds arrive in the Central Valley, they are hungry! Rice fields provide an abundance of dining options. They eat rice and seed left behind after harvest, as well as protein-rich invertebrates like crayfish, weevils, worms and snails. This diet rich in carbohydrates and proteins provide the necessary calories and nutrients for molting and reproduction.(5)
Essentially, California’s rice lands are like an all-inclusive resort to travel-wary water birds. California rice fields provide the habitat and food birds need to rejuvenate and recharge before continuing along their migratory path.
Which Species Can You Spot?
Water birds can be seen hanging out in the Central Valley at various times of the year and can be categorized as waterfowl, shorebirds, or long-legged waders. Each group has their own distinct characteristics.
- Ducks, geese, and swans
- Excellent swimmers with webbed feet and flat bills
- Survival depends on wetlands such as rivers, lakes, or the ocean
- Up to 7 million waterfowl winter in the Central Valley
- Rice fields provide nearly 60 percent of all of their food resources in the Central Valley(6)
- Sandpipers, avocet, dunlins, snipes, whimbrels, and black-necked stilts
- Long legs and long thin bills to probe the ground in search of food
- Live in open areas of beaches, mudflats, grasslands, and wetlands
- Rice fields in the Sacramento Valley have been recognized as a “Shorebird Site of International Significance”
- Herons, egrets, ibis, and cranes
- Very long legs and long bills
- Find their food in a variety of habitats, mostly in shallow waters
Different groups of water birds are on slightly different migration schedules that determine when they’ll make their grand entrance into the Sacramento Valley. Here are what you’re likely to see during the four seasons:
Fall (September – November)
- Shorebirds are the first to arrive in the Sacramento Valley. The earliest show up around August after already breeding further north.
- Larger flocks of shorebirds join in September.
- The beginning of the fall migration of waterfowl is signaled by the first ducks to appear – the Northern Pintails.
- White-fronted geese appear in October.
- Shorebirds continue farther south in October.
Winter (December – February)
- This is peak season for ducks and geese.
- Look for snow and Ross’s geese, mallard, wigeon, teal, bufflehead, ibis, ruddy duck, northern shoveler, and ring-necked ducks.
Spring (March – May)
- Ducks and geese leave for their breeding grounds.
- Shorebirds like sandpipers, dowitchers, dunlin, avocets, and black-necked stilts return to probe the mudflats for food.
Summer (June – August)
- Long-legged waders and some ducks remain to nest.
- Songbirds are found in the trees.
- Mammals like deer, jackrabbits, otter, and muskrats can be observed.
If you’re looking to do some bird watching, a perfect spot is the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex. Go in the winter to see nearly 250,000 birds of 15 to 25 different species. The six-mile driving tour only costs $6, or is free with a $15 federal duck stamp.
Farmers Helping Their Feathered Friends
Rice farmers feel a sense of responsibility and pride in giving back to the land that gives them so much in return. Today there are various programs that provide strong partnerships and collaboration opportunities to support farmers that aid the water birds that rely on their fields for survival.
Some of these programs include:
- Water Bird Habitat Enhancement Program, which enables farmers to implement bird-friendly management practices
- California Waterfowl Habitat Program, which has helped to increase food supplies
- and Bird Returns, an innovative program that enables donors to give money in order to pay farmers to flood their fields early and keep them flooded longer
Rice Farmer’s Perspective
For rice farmers, the day starts before sunrise and ends well beyond sunset. Their livelihood depends on the cycles of nature.
Knowing their land and all the species that call it home is a skill that takes a lifetime of learning for farmers to acquire. So to share their rice fields with water birds is as natural as walking the checks with their dog to monitor the progress of their crop every morning.
As Tom Atkinson of Murphy Lake Farms describes, “the benefits of water birds are tangible. The wintering birds help decompose the straw left behind after harvest and naturally fertilize the soil with added nitrogen so it is easier to till in the spring.” He adds, “conservation programs support farmers who minimize water use by leveling their fields and recycling water.” Migrating birds share a mutually beneficial relationship with rice farmers each year when they visit the Central Valley fields along the Pacific Flyway.
Paul Buttner of the California Rice Commission comments how fortunate we are in California to “produce some of the highest quality japonica rice in the world, while also providing valuable habitat for nearly 230 species of wildlife. It is uniquely important to California rice brands and something that we continuously work on, in coordination with our many conservation partners, across the state.”
If you’d like to learn more or get involved in water bird habitat protection in California, here are some great places to start:
- California Rice Commission: http://calrice.org
- Species Report: http://calrice.org/pdf/wildlife/Species-Report.pdf
- Wildlife Guide: http://calrice.org/wildlife/wildlife-guide
- Audubon California: http://ca.audubon.org
- California Waterfowl Association: http://www.calwaterfowl.org/conservation-programs
- Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge: http://www.fws.gov/refuge/sacramento/
- Central Valley Bird Club: http://www.cvbirds.org
1. Frayer, W. E., Dennis D. Peters, and H. Ross Pywell. “Wetlands of The Central Valley of California Status and Trends 1939 – 1980’s.” June (1989): n. pag. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Web. 10 Aug. 2015.
2. Sesser, Kristin A., Kahara M. Strum, Catherine M. Hickey, and Matthew E. Reiter. “Assessing the Environmental Trade-offs of Greenhouse Gas Emission Reduction in California’s Rice Fields: The Effect of Baling on Waterbird Use of Winter Flooded Rice Fields.” November (2013): 2. Point Blue Conservation Science. Prepared for the Environmental Defense Fund, 26 Nov. 2013. Web. 11 Aug. 2015.
3. Buttner, Paul, and Mark Biddlecomb. “Rice and Wetlands: Exceptionally Critical to Waterbirds in Low Water Years.” Rice News. California Rice Commission, 11 Mar. 2014. Web. 12 Aug. 2015.
4. “Species List.” Species List. California Rice Commission, n.d. Web. 11 Aug. 2015.
5. “Birds and Pacific Flyway.” Northern California Water Association. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Aug. 2015.
6. Petrie, Mark, Phd., and Kevin Petrik. “Assessing Waterbird Benefits From Water Use In California Ricelands.” California Rice Commission. Ducks Unlimited, May 2010: 3. Web. 11 Aug. 2015.