Wildlife in Young Rice Fields

By Luke Matthews

This time of year, rice growers in the Sacramento Valley are wrapping up planting their crop and nurturing young rice fields. Once the rice seeds germinate these fields rapidly change from open water habitat into a sea of dense flooded grass. As these fields evolve in their growing season they provide habitat for a wide variety of birds throughout the different stages of the crop development.

The initial flooding of rice fields for planting suddenly creates hundreds of thousands of acres of shallow flooded habitat, which is heavily utilized by shorebirds such as Black-necked Stilts, American Avocets, White-faced Ibis and Killdeer. Duck species such as Mallard and Gadwall seem to rely on these annual flooding events to start their nesting actives for the year. Additionally, herons and egrets are frequent users of this habitat and eagerly feed on little fish, amphibians, and invertebrates that are brought into the fields with the water.

As the rice plants germinate and poke through the water, these fields start to transition into attractive nesting habitat for Black-necked Stilts and Black Terns. These birds will build their nests directly in the rice fields on small mounds of dirt that will soon be concealed by the growing rice crop.

Finally, as the plants reach their full height (roughly 3 ft.), American Bitterns, Mallard, and Gadwall utilize the crop as habitat. American Bitterns hide themselves throughout the rice plants and hunt for food. Mallard and Gadwall hens that were nesting in nearby areas will bring their ducklings into rice fields, where the crop provides them with concealment, food, and water.

In addition to the species that I listed above, you might also see blackbirds, hawks, owls and a variety of shorebird species in these fields this time of year. The next time you drive past a growing rice crop, take a moment to look because I would be willing to bet that you will see some bird activity in that field.

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