The Power of a Puddle
By Tim Johnson
We recently moved into a condominium in preparation for a permanent relocation to the family ranch at the end of the year. The development is right at the base of the Sacramento Valley foothills. The grazing land is already dry. Soon the only green will be the oaks.
Along with the condo has come several hundred barn swallows all nesting under the eves of the adjacent stucco buildings. That’s a lot of birds concentrated on a few buildings. I wondered what drew them to this location.
With no lake or river anywhere near, where were they getting the mud to build their nests and insects to feed their chicks?
Is was only when I was stopped at a traffic light that I realized the small pond – a puddle really – next to the road was teaming with the same birds. The same was true of the man-made pond in the middle of the town center a couple of blocks away.
All these birds and all this wildlife in the middle of an arid landscape and suburban shopping center. Impressive!
In the upcoming weeks, the shallow flooded rice fields in the Sacramento Valley will provide the same spark for birds (including barn swallows and many shorebirds), mammals and amphibians that call rice fields home.
Those few inches of water (only five) provide enough water to build nests, feed young and transform a landscape from arid to wetland.
A hundred years ago, this habitat would have been provided by natural wetlands. Cut off from the rivers by levees used to control flooding, these habitats are now only five percent of their historic levels. Fortunately rice, an aquatic crop, grown on the same poor–draining, heavy clay soils, is a very suitable replacement.
Soon the Sacramento Valley will be teaming with wildlife that literally springs from few inches of water on our fields.
California ricelands are much more than farms used to grow food. They are a critical complement to the few remaining wetlands and vital to the natural rhythm of our valley.