Typically it wouldn’t be especially noteworthy that six California farmers in Tulare and Kern County finished harvesting their silage crops last week, even if it is a little later than usual. However, the actions of these six farmers, with help from conservationists at USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Audubon California, have resulted in saving more than 65,000 rare Tricolored Blackbirds.
The species is now federally listed as a Bird of Conservation Concern, a California state Species of Special Concern, and also protected under the provisions of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
"Western United Dairymen members have once again partnered with NRCS and Audubon California to protect the Tricolored Blackbird,” said Paul Sousa, Environmental Director for Western United Dairymen. “This shows our members' commitment to a sustainable ecosystem on and around their farms. This voluntary program benefits all parties as conservation is achieved in a way that allows farms to continue to be productive."
Over 40 percent of Tricolored Blackbirds choose to nest in Central Valley silage fields that resemble the marshland the birds traditionally inhabited. “You never know for sure where the birds will decide to nest in a given year,” say Jesse Bahm and Keiller Kyle, a team of biologists with NRCS and Audubon respectively. “Tricolored blackbirds are colonial nesters and when they choose a nesting area it can mean everything to the success of thousands of birds—but some headaches to the farmers who find themselves playing host to the colonies.”
Farmers with Tricolored Blackbirds can help the birds by delaying their harvesting until the young can fly away. However this also delays the summer planting, can disrupt the equipment and labor schedules the farmers have negotiated in advance, and also results in a loss of quality to the silage fields hosting the birds.
NRCS and Audubon work with the farmers to minimize disruptions to farming operations and NRCS offers payments through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), to compensate farmers for the resulting drop in the quality of the grain. This year the farmers who hosted the six colonies of Tricolored Blackbirds saved more than 65,000 birds—about one fifth of the species’ entire global population. One Tulare farm had more than 30,000 Tricolored birds. The birds all successfully fledged by the end of May.
The conservation organizations are working toward a long-term plan that would eventually provide alternative nesting sites to the Tricolored Blackbirds that would be preferable to the farmers’ fields.