In a split vote on Wednesday, Dec. 3, the California Fish and Game Commission enacted emergency protections for Tricolored Blackbirds in response to a petition filed by the Center for Biological Diversity in October. The commission will protect the Tricolored Blackbirds under the California Endangered Species Act for 180 days. The Department of Fish and Wildlife will evaluate the petition and recommend to the commission whether to protect the birds on a permanent basis.

Comprehensive statewide surveys show a 78% decline of the bird population in California’s San Joaquin Valley over the past six years. The latest population survey released earlier this year found 145,000 birds, a decline from 258,000 in 2011 and 395,000 in 2008.

Paul Sousa, Western United Dairymen (WUD) director of environmental services, provided testimony at the meeting and advised the decision could jeopardize voluntary agreements with dairy owners who committed to help protect Tricolored Blackbirds nesting in dairy silage fields. Sousa and other farm groups present also warned that farmers might stop planting silage fields, instead turning to permanent crops that don’t provide the same kind of quality habitat for the birds.

Every spring, Tricolored Blackbirds build large colonies of nests in the Central Valley areas that were once marshy ecosystems and are now cropland. About 43% of the birds now use silage crops such as triticale and wheat to build their nests. Usually, the winter-planted crops are harvested before the birds have fledged, resulting in great declines in the Tricolored Blackbird populations. 

Earlier this year, California farmers who had Tricolored Blackbirds nesting in their fields were eligible for financial assistance from USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to delay harvesting and allow the birds 35 days to fledge their young. This initiative was coordinated through a partnership effort with Audubon California.

In 2013, 65,000 breeding birds were saved – one-fifth of the species’ entire global population – after farmers agreed to delay their harvest schedule, according to WUD. Tricolored Blackbirds may choose different fields in different years.

WUD is researching the ramifications for dairymen and will have more details in the coming months.