Human activity often is in conflict with nature, but in some special places certain human endeavors harmonize exquisitely with the natural environment.

Such is the case in the rice fields of California’s Sacramento Valley. Viewed from aircraft, the marshy rice fields radiate the glistening rays of the sun. At ground level, though, the lush land is so much more than agricultural acreage. The rice fields support an ecosystem teeming with aquatic wildlife much of the year.

credit: Leslie Morris: Sandhill Cranes credit: Leslie Morris: Sandhill Cranes

credit: Leslie Morris: Sandhill Cranes Aerial Rice Fields

Amid their seasonal travels along the 4,000-mile Pacific Flyway, birds of nearly 200 species have been known to take refuge in the rice fields at various times of the year. They rest, find cover from predators, feed and regain strength in the rice paddies. Many waterfowl and shorebirds that are migrating to distant breeding grounds or are pursuing food or more favorable climate elsewhere may remain in the rice fields for as little as a few days, but others may stay throughout an entire season. Many avian species breed amid the rice fields.

Pacific Americas Flyway for Migratory Birds Pacific Americas Flyway for Migratory Birds

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The protective role of rice growing

credit: Leslie Morris: Black-necked Stilts credit: Leslie Morris: Black-necked Stilts

credit: Leslie Morris: Black-necked Stilts credit: Leslie Morris: Black-necked Stilts

During the mid-20th century, about 250,000 acres of natural wetlands were lost to urban growth, ranching and farming in the Sacramento Valley and the San Joaquin Valley, by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service calculations. Environmentally responsible rice-growing practices during recent decades fortunately compensated for much of that lost wetland.

Post-harvest inundation of rice fields not only accelerates decomposition of rice straw but also creates habitat for waterbirds. As a result, the Central Valley remains the most important waterfowl wintering area in the Pacific Flyway, supporting about 60 percent of the total migratory bird population passing through the region.

Rice fields support species diversity

The rice fields attract ducks, geese, herons, egrets, bitterns, avocets, snipe, grebes, pelicans, and numerous other species. Recurrent visitors also include Black-necked Stilts, which the National Audubon Society describes as a “priority bird.” Black-necked Stilts are characterized by delicate features — incredibly thin pink stilt-like legs, slim wings and a needle-like black bill. The diet of these shorebirds consists primarily of insects and crustaceans, which they find by walking slowly through wetlands.

credit: Brian Baer, Black-necked Stilts credit: Brian Baer, Black-necked Stilts

credit: Brian Baer, Black-necked Stilts credit: Brian Baer, Black-necked Stilts

Black-necked Stilts feed on species of flies, beetles and other insects, along with shrimp, crayfish, snails, tadpoles and other small creatures that live on or near the surface of water. Despite their seeming fragility, Black-necked Stilts manage to thrive on the sun-baked flats around shallow lakes, even those in hot climates. Rice field habitat plays an important role in perpetuation of the species. The California chapter of the National Audubon Society reports that more than 70% of California’s Black-necked Stilts breed in the Sacramento Valley.

credit: Leslie Morris: Sandhill Cranes credit: Leslie Morris: Sandhill Cranes

credit: Leslie Morris: Sandhill Cranes credit: Leslie Morris: Sandhill Cranes

Also attracted to California rice-growing areas during autumn and winter are Sandhill Cranes. These magnificent birds have a wingspan of almost seven feet, and adults stand up to four feet tall. Although Greater and Lesser Sandhill Cranes are among the longest-enduring bird species, dating to 2.5 million years ago, their numbers dwindled sharply under the pressure of westward human migration during the past two centuries. As a result of habitat loss to human settlement and unregulated hunting, their breeding activity in Washington state had ceased by 1941; no more than 200 breeding pairs were identified in Oregon, and in California the breeding population was reduced to no more than five pairs.

The environmentally sensitive practices that Central Valley rice growers adopted have been beneficial to the recovery of the species, which increased to about 500 breeding pairs by the early 2000s. Even so, Sandhill Cranes remain extremely rare in California outside their Central Valley wintering grounds. They roost at night in shallow water or moist fields, and they forage in flocks for earthworms, insects, rodents, snails, frogs, lizards, snakes, berries and seeds. They commonly build their nests on mounds of wetland plants in shallow water. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife characterizes these birds as monogamous; pairs often remain together throughout their lifespan.

The California Ricelands Waterbird Foundation is working in collaboration with Central Valley rice growers and highly regarded waterbird conservation groups. Our united goal in applying waterbird conservation measures on private lands is to help protect this vital waterbird habitat and the species using it.

The foundation cost-effectively channels the generous, tax-deductible contributions of our donors into science-based conservation activities: habitat enhancement, research, and monitoring for the benefit of waterbirds in rice growing regions of the state.