Farming for the Birds in California’s Central Valley

The land of endless vegetable rows and fruit groves is also one of our most important flyways. The birds could use some tending, too.

An alfalfa field in central California

Credit: Ken Figlioli/Flickr

California’s fertile Central Valley is known for its rows upon rows of carrots and tomatoes, fields of rice, and groves of almond and orange trees. It is less known for the untamed nature in its midst. Yet the pastoral lands of the Golden State form part of the Pacific Flyway―one of North America’s four main migratory paths for birds. And so there among the crops, cranes dip and forage in the corn and rice fields, and blackbirds nest in the pasture grass.

This is why environmental groups like the Audubon Society have been collaborating with Central Valley farmers for more than a decade. Audubon has been doing this through its Working Lands program. The group’s California director of land and water conservation, Meghan Hertel, began her job out in the fields, driving shotgun with farmers in their trucks to pinpoint the best ways to accommodate wildlife flying by. “We know birds,” says Hertel. “We trust that farmers know their crops.”

Yellow-billed magpie in Bradley, California
Credit: Aaron Maizlish/Flickr

Audubon’s goal is to bring back species that have been on the decline since the Valley’s natural habitat began to fragment some 200 years ago. Swainson’s hawks, for example, once numbered nearly 17,000 mating pairs in the state; today they hover closer to 2,000 pairs. In 2014, BirdLife International estimated that California’s endemic yellow-billed magpie, a cartoonish-looking songbird, had declined by as much as 50 percent over the course of three generations.

Audubon is working to show California farmers the merits of making room for birds on their land. To accommodate wildlife around crops, the group’s field staff begin by helping farmers plant native perennial grasses with deep roots that secure the soil alongside their fields and in ditches near roads. These grasses lure ground feeders like golden-crowned sparrows and also provide natural erosion control. The conservationists then plant forbs (herbaceous flowering plants) such as red fuchsias, primroses, and poppies to bring in hummingbirds, insects, and other pollinators. The bugs are a big draw for the birds, but they’re also good for crops: One 2006 Biological Conservation study in Northern California found that wild bee species significantly boost the production of plump fruit on the Valley’s hybrid Sun Gold cherry tomato vines. What’s more, planting certain forbs, such as a hedgerow of sweet alyssum in a lettuce field, can aid farmers by attracting beneficial insects that help control crop pests like Lygus bugs, aphids, and thrips. (Pests like these have thrived amid the state’s recent drought conditions.)

Hummingbird feeding on California fuchsia
Credit: TJ Gehling/Flickr

Finally, planting trees like cottonwoods and oaks attract birds that sit at the top of the food chain, such as the Swainson’s hawks that now, Hertel says, depend on the Valley’s alfalfa fields and irrigated pasture throughout the breeding season.

The plants aren’t the only gateway to the return of wildlife, however. Diplomacy between conservationists and landowners is key. Some California farmers complain that the native hedgerows and corridors attract birds that eat their seed heads and young crops. Others contend that the wild plants lend a “messy” appearance to their carefully sowed and tilled fields.

Moreover, installing native plants is pricey. Take it from Los Banos farmer Cannon Michael, who’s been involved in habitat restoration efforts on his property with both Audubon and Ducks Unlimited for the past five years. His wildlife areas, which include a seven-mile-long riparian corridor flanking rows of garbanzo beans and the special wide-kernel corn he grows for the Corn Nuts brand, cost him upwards of $50,000 to install. “If I didn’t believe in it, if I didn’t think the end results would be something really positive, I would never put in that kind of investment,” Michael says. He credits his interests in the work to both soil health and sustainability.

Los Banos farmer Cannon Michael in the habitat restoration area adjacent to his farm
Credit: Courtesy of Cannon Michael, Bowles Farming Company

Nontraditional environmentalist–agriculturist relationships like this largely began as result of California’s five-year drought, says farmer Roger Cornwell of River Garden Farms in Knights Landing. Landowners, government officials, and environmental stewards were forced to “sit ourselves down and meet around the same table” to discuss how to stretch the state’s remaining water resources. This served as a good reminder that wildlife and crops are subject to forces far bigger than us, he says.

Along with planting natives, Audubon and the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) also urge Californian agriculturalists to protect birds by delaying their spring harvests. In particular, says Alan Forkey of NRCS, conservationists are concerned with the tricolored blackbird, found almost exclusively in California and distinguished from the more widespread red-winged blackbird by a small white epaulet on its wing. Tricolored blackbirds, considered North America’s most colonial songbird, are known to gather by the tens of thousands during the breeding season. But those spectacles have become increasingly rare. The bird’s population has declined by more than 60 percent since 2008, Forkey says, largely due to the loss of its wetlands habitat. Today, the tricolored is protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and it has tried to adapt to the cultivated landscape—to its own peril. The birds now nest in the area’s silage fields (pasture grass that farmers grow and later pickle to feed to cattle), which means that the silage is full of flightless baby blackbirds just as farmers prepare to cut it in late March.

Tricolored blackbird in central California
Credit: Blake Matheson/Flickr

It’s not a pretty situation. Since 2012, to stave off the bloodbath, NRCS has offered $600 an acre as an incentive for silage farmers to delay their harvest until May, once the chicks have fledged. This delay affects the time line for the planting of the farmers’ next crop: corn. Though the farmers do still take a financial hit, Forkey says, “we end up saving something like 25,000 birds.”

The future of wildlife-friendly farming in the Central Valley requires give and take on both sides. “We really want to see projects going forward that have multiple benefits,” Audubon’s Hertel says. For certain species, like the tricolored blackbird—now a candidate for California’s endangered species list—that benefit seems to be a matter of survival.

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