Rice fields welcome birds

Tim Hearden/Capital Press Willows, Calif., rice grower Gary Enos, left, consults with Robert Vlach of the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service about his effort to draw down flood irrigation in one of his fields to provide habitat for migratory birds. Enos is one of 70 area rice farmers taking part in a federal bird habitat program.

Slight modifications to fields create waterfowl habitat

By TIM HEARDEN

Capital Press

WILLOWS, Calif. -- Rice grower Gary Enos figures it won't take much extra effort to make his land hospitable to migratory shorebirds and waterfowl.

For example, a longer flooding of the fields for the birds' sake also has the desired effect of degrading the postharvest rice stubble. Setting aside a portion of a field as wetlands habitat allows intake habitat to warm, which helps both the birds and the tender rice plants.

"We like to be progressive in how we deal with the environment in all of our farming practices," said Enos, co-owner of Carriere Family Farms. "We like to take an interest in what's going on with all of our properties and what we can do to enhance them, whether it be preparing the land in the spring or what we can do in the wintertime with waterfowl and shorebirds."

Enos is one of 70 rice farmers in the middle Sacramento Valley who have signed contracts with the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service to participate in the $2.68 million bird habitat project.

In the three-year Migratory Bird Habitat Initiative, farmers will receive an average of $30 to $35 per enrolled acre each year to take certain measures to provide birds with a stop-over in their journey south for the winter, according to Robert Vlach, an NRCS conservationist based in Willows.

"It's not much money, but its practices that are pretty conducive to rice country," Vlach said.

For instance, the farmers will flood their fields earlier, maintain the water longer or keep it at a shallower depth to accommodate the birds. Also, Enos and others are flattening some levees to provide a better nesting surface and shoulders to make it easier for chicks to navigate from nests to water.

In all, the project will encompass about 30,000 acres of shallow water development, 138 miles of modified dikes and 157 bat and owl boxes, Vlach said. All of the properties are in Glenn and Colusa counties.

The Farm Bill-funded pilot project is the result of years of research and talks involving conservationists and rice farmers, officials said. The California Rice Commission, Audubon California and other groups have worked with NRCS to develop waterbird-friendly land management practices that are also conducive to farming, according to a news release.

Jim Morris, spokesman for the California Rice Commission, declined to comment about the project.

Enos, who has 310 acres enrolled, said the program will help Carriere Family Farms offset its cost of doing business.

"It helps a lot," he said. "Anything they can do helps with the added cost of producing rice."

Online

Natural Resources Conservation Service California: www.ca.nrcs.usda.gov

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