Rice Planting and Waterbird Benefits

By Luke Matthews

In a normal year, there are roughly 500,000 acres of rice fields being planted in the Sacramento Valley each spring. Farmers typically begin planting preparation in March by tilling the soil in their fields. Once the soil has been fully prepared, a shallow amount of water is spread across it and rice seeds are applied over the entire field by airplane. The seeds germinate in the few inches of water and eventually break through the surface. These young rice plants will continue to grow through the summer and are typically ready for harvest in September. This planting process has been developed to optimize rice production but it also creates excellent habitat for a wide variety of waterbirds.

The initial tillage and flooding of fields in preparation for planting creates a huge amount of uniformed shallow flooded habitat, which is perfect for migratory and resident waterbirds. Migratory shorebirds rely on these fields each spring to provide resting and refueling locations for their northward journey. Resident waterbirds also key in on these flooded fields as potential breeding habitat. In fact, species such as Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet, American Bittern and Black Tern can often be found building their nests directly inside the flooded rice fields. Other waterbirds such as Mallard, Gadwall and Killdeer nest immediately adjacent to these fields. While most of these birds take advantage of the open water conditions created while the rice crop is still germinating, other species prefer to utilize rice fields once the crop reaches its full height of roughly three feet. Examples include bitterns, ducks, egrets, and herons. Ducks and bitterns rely on the tall rice plants to conceal their young from predators while egrets and herons hunt for fish, frogs and crawfish throughout the fields.

Unfortunately, due to significant and continued drought conditions across California and limited water allocations for farmers, there will be less plantings of rice acreage in the Sacramento Valley, compared to years past. While this obviously has impacts on rural agricultural communities, it can also have significant impacts on wildlife due to the reduction of surrogate wetland habitat. Nevertheless, if you drive past a planted rice field this summer, take a moment to look because you will undoubtably see wildlife in the fields.

Luke Matthews is the Wildlife Programs Manager for the California Rice Commission