Young birds in rice fields
Rice fields are well known for their ability to provide important surrogate wetland habitat during the winter months. By flooding rice fields after harvest, the agricultural fields are transformed into seasonal wetlands, which provide habitat for millions of migratory waterbirds. The contribution that rice fields make to supporting the Pacific Flyway has become absolutely crucial due to the loss of nearly 95% of the historic wetlands in California. While the surrogate wetland function is often highlighted during the winter months, this same function also exists in the summer while the rice crop is growing.
Rice plants are grown in standing water fulfilling many of the same ecological requirements as a natural wetland, thus earning rice fields the title of ‘surrogate wetlands’. Unfortunately, natural wetland habitat can be very limited in the Sacramento Valley during the summer months. This increases the value of these rice fields and the surrogate wetland habitat they provide. The summer months are very important for waterbirds because it is when the next generation is being raised; and, as the name might imply, waterbirds actually require wetland habitat to breed and raise their young.
Waterbirds that nest in or near rice fields also rely on those same fields to provide safe foraging habitat for their young after they hatch. In general, young birds need three things to survive and thrive: a high protein food source, water and safety. Rice fields meet all three of those requirements. First, they supply an ample, protein rich, food source from invertebrates, fish and frogs within the fields. Second, these fields supply plenty of water for the young waterbirds to thrive. Finally, the growing rice crop provides concealment for the young birds. This concealment protects them from the scorching summer heat and the watchful eyes of predators.
With limited water supplies in California, the rice industry was only able to plant roughly half of their normal rice acreage. In addition to reductions in planted rice, there are fewer flooded wetlands in the Sacramento Valley. The reductions in both wetland and surrogate wetland habitat means that there is very limited habitat available for breeding waterbirds. Every acre of planted rice and flooded wetland is crucial this summer and is playing an important role in supporting our local breeding birds during this horrible drought.