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State of the Birds Report

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Rice Farm Habitat for Waterbirds


Rice fields in California’s Central Valley by Dale Humburg  

Three regions combine to account for essentially all domestic rice production in the United States: the Mississippi Alluvial Valley from southern Illinois to Louisiana, the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and Texas, and the Central Valley of California. In these areas, ricelands act as surrogates for lost wetlands. Although they can't fully replace natural wetlands, ricelands support approximately 45% of the North American wintering duck population. Ricelands provide an estimated 60% of all dabbling duck foods in the Central Valley, 35% of all food along the Gulf Coast, and 70% of food in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley. These same habitats are also extremely important to shorebirds and other wetland-dependent birds.

  Migratory Bird Habitat Initiative:
Demonstrating Landowner Engagement
in Bird Conservation

Following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, which threatened bird habitat in coastal marshes along the Gulf of Mexico, the Natural Resources Conservation Service launched the Migratory Bird Habitat Initiative to provide inland habitats for migratory waterbirds. Delivered through various Farm Bill conservation programs, the initiative was enthusiastically embraced by landowners, and more than 470,000 acres of private lands were enrolled in 8 states from Florida and Georgia to Texas and Missouri.

The many rice growers and other producers participating in the initiative demonstrated their willingness to modify operations to provide shallow water and mudflat-type habitats for wading birds, shorebirds, and waterfowl. In exchange for small financial incentives, producers activated existing on-farm infrastructure—levees, pumps, tractors, disks, mowers, and other equipment—to provide migrating and wintering waterbirds with habitat and high-energy foods.

By providing feeding and resting areas for waterbirds at a time when such spots were in short supply on the landscape, the initiative demonstrated an extremely efficient and effective way of quickly providing crucial habitat. It also supported local economies by attracting hunters and bird watchers. The program was so popular it was expanded to other regions and additional years, which was fortuitous given the successive years of droughts after the oil spill. Even in wet years, the Migratory Bird Habitat Initiative provides important waterbird habitats.


Although ricelands remain a cornerstone of wintering waterbird habitat, rice agriculture has experienced significant declines on the Gulf Coast. Declines of similar magnitude have not yet been observed in other rice growing regions. However, competition for water supplies, urban expansion, and changing cultivation practices will exert pressures on the U.S. rice industry that may have consequences for waterbirds.

In Texas, the human population is expected to grow by about 20 million people by 2040, an increase of more than 40% from 2012, creating greater demands for municipal water. Much of this growth will occur in rice-growing regions and in areas where rice operations get their water supply. Extreme drought across Texas during 2011–12 depleted reservoir water supplies and prompted the Lower Colorado River Authority to withhold water from approximately 55,000 acres of rice in Texas for the 2012 growing season. As a result, Texas rice acreage in 2012 was projected to be 114,000 acres, the lowest reported since 1929. Shrinking rice acreage threatens waterbirds in this region, where native wetland habitats are largely gone, and cultivated rice areas provide a majority of the habitat for wading birds and migratory shorebirds. In the future, water restrictions and withholding from rice operations will likely occur more often as human populations grow, extreme weather continues, and water supplies are strained.

Rice acreage in California—which supports habitat for White-faced Ibis, Black-necked Stilts, and other shorebirds, as well as ducks, geese, and swans—has been relatively stable over the past several decades, but that may change. Similar to Texas, California is expected to see population growth (7 million more people by 2030). Yet, as demand for water increases, available water supplies are expected to shrink. Climate scientists project a 25% to 40% reduction in average annual mountain snowpack by 2050; that snowpack provides one-third of  California’s water supply. A reduced water supply could have a negative effect on rice production and managed wetlands in the Central Valley. The two are intertwined, as water drained from rice fields provides water for more than 50% of wetlands managed for wildlife in the northern half of the Central Valley.

Long-billed Dowitchers in flooded rice field by Tom Johnson

The Migratory Bird Habitat Conservation Partnership (a collaborative between Audubon California, The Nature Conservancy, and PRBO Conservation Science) has been working with rice growers on practices that can provide bird habitat, such as managing water levels during spring and fall migration. So far the program has enrolled more than 100,000 acres of ricelands (about 20% of California's total rice acreage) into the Waterbird Habitat Enhancement Program.

Concerns about rice agriculture in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley focus on the waste rice available as food for waterbirds during winter. Recent studies in the valley documented a 70% decline in biomass of waste rice between harvest and early November. Development of earlier maturing rice varieties may hold promise for a second crop of rice (ratoon) to be harvested in autumn, thereby providing waste rice closer to the arrival of migrant birds in the valley.

Loss of riceland agriculture, or shifts to cultivation practices that diminish its value to birds, will impair the ability of these key working landscapes to support waterfowl. If current ricelands lose their viability for agricultural production, it would cost more than $1.5 billion to acquire and manage wetlands to replace them. Creative solutions, such as planning for more efficient water use, are urgently needed to ensure the sustainability of American rice agriculture with conditions that provide foraging benefits to wintering birds.

Black-necked Stilt by Gerrit Vyn 


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