As California braces for what is shaping up to be its driest year on record, millions of birds are winging their way down through the Golden State’s parched Central Valley along the migratory route known as the Pacific Flyway. But with just 5 percent of the historic wetlands of the region remaining, habitat for migratory shorebirds in need of a rest and a meal is in short supply.
Fortunately for tuckered ducks and spent sandhill cranes, the Nature Conservancy and rice farmers are teaming up to create temporary wetlands exactly where the birds need them most.
Ordinarily, rice farms, flooded through the winter to help decompose leftover rice straw, are drained at the end of January to prepare the ground for spring planting. But this year, over 40 rice farms in the valley will let 2 to 4 inches of water stand in their fields through February and March — creating 10,000 additional acres of wetlands.
Only 250,000 acres of wildlife refuges and managed wetlands exist in the Valley.
The Nature Conservancy used the vast data set on bird spring arrival dates and locations compiled through the popular birdwatcher app, eBird to pinpoint when and where wetland habitat needed to be created. The Conservancy then asked rice farmers along the flyway to submit bids on how much it would cost to keep their fields flooded for a few extra weeks — essentially renting out habitat for birds at around $45 an acre.
California’s Central Valley supports 60 percent of the ducks and geese, and 30 percent of the shorebirds on the entire Pacific Flyway, which still sees nearly 8 million migratory birds each year. Of the 65 bird species expected to use the temporary habitat, more than 40 percent are species of concern and conservation priority.
The Nature Conservancy is calling its habitat renting scheme BirdReturns and hopes to expand the program after this year.