Audubon California
Tricolored blackbirds are under siege in northern California from a loss of habitat.

Farmers and Wildlife Service Fight to Save California's Blackbirds

Lynn Armitage
7/7/13

Concern is growing among wildlife officials over the rapidly diminishing population of tricolored blackbirds, specifically in California, which has seen the bird’s numbers plummet by 80 percent over the past 70 years alone.

A new collaboration between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Audubon California and some of the state's dairy farmers is seeking to preserve the species.

These small, dark birds, marked by a signature red and white patch on the wings, used to flutter in the millions across the globe, flocking together in huge breeding colonies. But according to a recent survey by Audubon California, their numbers have diminished to a startling 260,000, with 95 percent of the population in California.

Environmental experts predict that if nothing changes, the remaining population of tricolored blackbirds in California, which have been added to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s list of Birds of Conservation Concern, could be whittled away to about 50,000 within 10 years.

Several factors have played a part in the decimation of this bird population, such as a decrease in their food supply as pesticides wipe out the insects that they sometimes feed on, according to a conservation project director at Audubon California. Farm equipment is another culprit.

Historically, California’s tricolored blackbirds have preferred to nest in marshes and grasslands up and down the state. But because much of their natural habitat has been lost to urban and agricultural development, the birds have adopted farm fields for nesting—specifically wheat fields and other feed crops on dairy farms that offer protection from predators. At harvest time in the spring, when the big machines move in, newborn birds that haven’t yet learned to fly don’t stand a chance.

In a collaborative effort to save the tricolored blackbirds, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Audubon California, a handful of dairy farmers in the San Joaquin Valley, have opted into a government program that pays the farmers $385 per acre to delay their harvests by about two weeks.

“Farmers in our state are very much connected to the land, and dairies themselves are homes to many different species, in addition to dairy cattle. So it seemed like a good opportunity for dairy farmers to step forward and continue that legacy of environmental stewardship by offering a portion of their land for the birds who have been displaced by urban expansion,” said Michael Marsh, the chief executive officer of Western United Dairymen.

Marsh said that this past spring, more than 65,000 tricolored blackbirds were saved as a result of six dairy farmers putting their harvests on hold for a bit to allow the baby birds to fledge and leave the nest on their own by the end of May, a decision that wasn’t without consequences.

“When you don’t harvest a feed crop, like alfalfa, at its peak time, the nutritive value for the dairy cattle is diminished. That’s why they were compensated by the NRCS,” explained Marsh. “But at the same time, they were able to preserve a species that might otherwise be lost.”

As well intentioned as the NRCS program is, it’s not the ultimate solution for saving the tricolored blackbird, said Garrison Frost, director of marketing and communication for Audubon California.

“While this may not solve the long-term problem for the blackbirds, it does buy us time as we try to create a new habitat away from the farms for these birds to breed on,” he said.

Frost said they have yet to work with American Indians in protecting the tricolored blackbird. But it is a possibility down the road.

“Really, the program goes where the birds are,” Frost said. “If there’s a colony on tribal lands that needs protection, we would be pleased to work with property owners to find a solution.”

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