Agriculture Discovers a New Crop – Shorebird Protection is one of those great cooperative conservation stories that is just begging to be told – and replicated elsewhere.  For those who follow the content of this site, Conservefewell is dedicated to those big thinking conservationists who divine approaches that balance the needs of human existence with all things non-human.  I have long possessed an enduring interest and fascination with birds, but particularly migratory birds and had the great pleasure of studying under the renowned tropical ecologist John Terborgh who spent so many years studying the behaviors and ecological needs of neotropical migrants, which includes nearly 350 species of birds, including the many warblers, raptors, shorebirds, and ducks.

The amazing journey of these birds can involve several hundred to several thousand miles, covered within only a few weeks time span, flying up to 150 miles each night.  By the time these birds arrive to our shores, they are often in rough shape in need plenty of food and habitat in order to help them recover.

For many of these migrants, particularly those along the major flyways, like the Pacific Coast, they have experienced a significant decline in habitat since the mid 1900s, due largely to agricultural practices.  For example, in California’s Central Valley, nearly 95 percent of the original wetlands that dotted the landscape are now gone, leaving only the remaining five percent available for wildlife habitat.  This has caused enormous stresses on neotropical migrants in particular who, upon their return to the U.S., are increasingly constrained and limited by habitat availability.

So out of urgency comes a great program featured this week in the NYT titled Paying Farmers to Welcome Birds.  This new initiative, called BirdReturns, started by the Nature Conservancy with support from Cornell Ornithology Lab, is aimed at engaging more farmers to provide critical habitat to these sojourners, leveraging new technologies, such as a new smart phone app for bird watchers to document when and where they observe these birds during their migration.  This data is then used to identify what areas are ecological critical to continue to support these bird populations.

The Nature Conservancy then pays farmers (in this case rice farmers) to keep their rice fields flooded several weeks longer than usual, enabling waterfowl and shorebirds, such as sandpipers, snipes, dunlins and whimbrels, to use the fields to forage for worms, crayfish and other food items.  The cost of this program is nominal compared to what it would cost for the federal government or conservation groups to purchase these areas outright.

It remains to be seen whether this program will be successful, but I have a hunch that it will be a big success not only for the birds, but for the farmers, as well, who have a new revenue stream and are doing something invaluable for conservation.  According to the article,

“We had a little bit of data in a few places, and on some species, but with eBird we can go wall to wall,” Dr. Reynolds said. “It’s a whole new window on migration we didn’t have before.”

The ideal depth for shorebirds is two to four inches of water; any more and it is too deep for foraging. When eBird data show that a migration is underway, rice growers who have entered low bids open their irrigation ditches to provide just the right amount of flooding. That results in the pop-up wetlands.

In this first year, 10,000 acres (out of 500,000 devoted to rice farming in the Central Valley) owned by 40 farmers were flooded for four, six or eight weeks, at an average of 200 to 250 acres each. (Many farmers did not participate because of California’s drought.) Even for farmers who have enough water, the program can require some careful calibration. “If we put our water on late, the fields might not dry out” in time for planting, said Doug Thomas, who grows sushi rice for Rue & Forsman Ranch near here and who took part in the program this year.

But he added that the compensation was better than adequate and that he liked the private-sector nature of the initiative.

Dr. Hallstein, of the Nature Conservancy, said that at first it was a difficult to get farmers to make the shift, but that it helped when they thought of shorebird protection as just another crop, like rice.

Biologists hope the approach is a solution for one of conservation’s most pressing problems. “Migratory birds are a daunting challenge,” Dr. Reynolds said. “It’s a hemispherical scale, and it’s seasonal, and every species has a different life history.” But he added that if BirdReturns’ encouraging early results in the Central Valley prove out, “you could create habitat all along the flyway.”

Great private-sector conservation story.  And special thanks to Mark Reynolds of TNC and Brian Sullivan, project leader for Cornell’s eBird project, for thinking and acting big to help conserve these migrant creatures.