Calif. rice farmers helping migratory birds

Associated Press Modified: June 23, 2012 at 11:03 am •  Published: June 23, 2012

WILLIAMS, Calif. (AP) — The rust-orange head of an American avocet darted back and forth watching for predators, its black-and-white feathered body plopped atop a nest of four speckled eggs that lay on an earthen levee in a California rice paddy.

"It's a full clutch of four eggs," said Monica Iglecia, a shorebird biologist with Audubon California, looking through binoculars. "This is why we do this work. It's exciting to see."

The hundreds of vast, flooded rice paddies that cover miles of interior northern California may seem like an unlikely safe haven for shorebirds, but changes occurring in the state's rice country may help improve the outlook for dozens of species in decline in recent decades. So far, more than 165 rice farmers have signed up for an incentive program that will build a system of islands and other habitat improvements in their paddies, and provide birds like the avocet a place to rest, feed and breed throughout the year.

The incentive, funded by $2 million from the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service, helps defray the costs of building the islands or of new equipment needed to make levees and other farm infrastructure more amenable as habitat.

California's rice farms lie in a region where about 95 percent of the native wetlands that once provided habitat for migratory and water birds have disappeared. The state's rice paddies, which produce much of the sushi rice consumed in the U.S., take up more than a half million acres in the Sacramento Valley while protected wetlands cover a little more than 77,000 acres.

Even with shrinking wetlands, this valley that stretches from the state capital north about 160 miles to Redding is a part-time home to cinnamon-teal ducks, dowitchers, dunlins, black-necked stilts and dozens of other migratory water birds.

Migratory birds face a number of perils, not least among them the effects of climate change, which is expected to reduce the Sierra Nevada snowpack and the amount of water feeding the remaining wetlands, said Khara Strum, a water bird ecologist with PRBO Conservation Science.

As natural bird habitat dwindles, California's Sacramento Valley falls under a flight pattern known as the Pacific Flyway, a major route for migratory birds that stretches from Alaska to Patagonia. So biologists see a significant opportunity in adding to and improving habitat on the only other wetlands that proliferate here: rice farms.

Jim LaGrande, a farmer whose family has grown rice in the region for generations, has flattened the tops of the 2,200-foot-long dirt levees that regulate the flow of Sacramento River water he uses to flood his paddies. The hip-high levees for generations had been built in an "A-frame" like mound that made nesting difficult.

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