Wintering Waterfowl Habitat concerns loom large

By Paul Buttner

I’ve been fielding many calls lately from reporters who are learning that the normal role that rice fields play at providing quality habitat is looking a little dicey this year. Indeed, we are looking down the barrel of a straw decomposition season where we may only get 50,000 acres flooded while we normally flood 250-300,000 acres. This will certainly be something to watch as the fall/winter season arrives.

Rice fields normally play a major role, largely because of the several hundred pounds of waste rice grain that remains in the fields after harvest, which is just underway. Ducks and geese flock to these flooded fields to feed on the very good source of energy they need to make it through the winter. In fact, rice fields normally feed about 2.4 million ducks, which is about half the wintering population here in the Central Valley. However, if our winter water is significantly curtailed this fall, rice fields will only feed a small fraction of these birds.

To make matters worse, the 75,000 acres of wetlands in the Sacramento Valley are also feeling the water supply pinch. Therefore, the birds that normally spread out on all the rice will be looking even more so to the area’s wetlands and they will find fewer of them as well.

Just like the wetland biologists working in the region, I too am very concerned about what may become a “perfect storm” for waterfowl habitat this winter. We are all expecting a large population of birds to come down here and they’ll likely find slim pickings for their essential habitat type–winter flooded rice and wetlands. Birds will likely be crowded on what little habitat there is and be very susceptible to diseases like botulism. We’ll all have to work together to deal with this situation as best we can.

Paul Buttner is Manager of Environmental Affairs for the California Rice Commission.

Mark Biddlecomb is Director of Operations for the Western Regional Office of Ducks Unlimited. Ducks Unlimited is a national non-profitorganization dedicated to the conservation of wetlands and waterfowl.