Rare Central Valley blackbirds saved by unusual partnership
July 10, 2012
• Dairy farmers and conservationists team up and results are surprising
• ‘This is a powerful partnership’
Still photo from NRCS video
Four Central Valley farmers are partnering with the have agreed to partner with the Natural Resources Conservation Service and Audubon California in an effort to save the rare tricolored blackbird, a California “Bird Species of Special Concern.”
Together the farmers and biologists have protected 60,000 breeding birds -- one-fifth of the species' entire global population -- after the farmers agreed to delay their harvest schedule and allow the birds to fledge safely, says the Davis-based office of the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
"I have never seen so many tricolored blackbirds as I have this year," says Rick Gorzeman, a dairy farmer in Tulare County. "At first we didn't know what to do but then I heard of a sign up program with the NRCS. This allowed me to let my wheat grow in the field longer while the birds' eggs hatched."
The program Mr. Gorzeman is referring to, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), provided technical and financial assistance to the four farmers from Kern, Merced and Tulare counties who participated in saving the birds. All birds successfully fledged in late May.
Keiller Kyle, a tricolored blackbird expert with Audubon California, monitors the rare birds' location patterns and development stages in areas throughout the Central Valley. With Mr. Kyle's expertise and the help of NRCS biologist Jesse Bahm, conservationists were able to target their efforts and develop the right harvesting schedule to protect the birds and worked with the farmers to assess the impact a harvest delay would have on crop quality and quantity.
"We are pleased that these farmers are willing to help protect this native California bird, and a lot of that has to do with reaching out to them with a strategy that considered the needs of both the birds and the farmers. NRCS is a crucial partner for outreach and funding that makes this program successful," says Mr. Kyle. "This is a powerful partnership of private landowners, nonprofit conservation organizations, and public agencies working to protect a unique species in a working landscape."
Every spring, tricolored blackbirds build large colonies of nests in the Central Valley's marshy areas and also in areas that were historically marshland but are now cropland. The birds have adapted to the change in vegetation and now over 40 percent of the birds build their nests in silage fields such as triticale and wheat.
Unfortunately, the nesting schedule of the species conflicts with the harvesting schedule of the farmers. The species is now federally listed as a Bird of Conservation Concern, a California Bird Species of Special Concern, and are also protected under the provisions of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
"We found that when farmers understood the situation they wanted to do what they could to help the birds," says Jennifer Cavanaugh, wetlands biologist with NRCS. "It was really satisfying to work with the farmers and Audubon California to find a win-win plan for helping wildlife while allowing farmers to continue to provide feed for their livestock."