Dry spring imperils dwindling tricolored blackbirds in Valley

The Fresno BeeMarch 15, 2014 

A single colony of 80,000 tricolor blackbirds filled a Tulare County farmer's field with nests and eggs a few years ago shortly before harvesting blades were scheduled to level the crop.

It would have been an ugly killing field if not for a delay negotiated between the farmer and Audubon California. The financial settlement saved one-third of Earth's dwindling population of tricolored blackbirds.

But California's epic drought may prevent such heroic ag-conservation alliances this year. And the tricolored blackbird finally may be pushed to long-dreaded protection under the Endangered Species Act.

With scarce water this season, wildlife refuges may not be able to attract these marsh-nesting birds this spring, forcing many more tricolored blackbirds to nest in farm fields.

Farmers may not be as willing this year to delay precious dairy feed crops, such as wheat. The price of water and feed have skyrocketed, so farmers will need timely harvests for peak prices to make ends meet.

Many tricolored blackbird colonies — sometimes tens of thousands — have been inadvertently wiped out in farm fields, biologists say. It just adds to the stress of a songbird that has been on the verge of federal protection since the 1990s.

Nearly all tricolored blackbirds live in California — an estimated 3 million of them in the 1930s but only about 250,000 just a few years ago. A bird count in April will reveal how bad the situation has become, experts say.

"The tricolored blackbird has been on a downward spiral since 2006," said researcher Robert Meese of the University of California at Davis. "I'm convinced we will see the number of birds drop to 100,000 or even less."

The tricolored blackbird has nested in the San Joaquin Valley for centuries in broad marshlands, vernal pools and creeks stretching millions of acres. But 95% of the habitat has disappeared as farming and development spread over many decades.

The birds gather in massive colonies, preferring to nest in tall reeds with water beneath them, said Garrison Frost of Audubon California. These days, the birds are particularly attracted to wheat fields.

"Just about the time the wheat is ready to harvest, the birds are nesting," Frost said. "It's important to negotiate a delay in the harvest. We can't ask farmers to upend their finances to do it. So we want to keep them whole."

The Natural Resources Conservation Service, part of the Department of Agriculture, has been providing money to help. The service chipped in about $100,000 last year to help out a few landowners and save up to 70,000 tricolored blackbirds, NRCS program manager Alan Forkey said.

The money helps compensate the farmers for the late harvest, which is not as profitable when it comes after the crop's peak.

But Forkey said farmers haven't been flocking to the program over the last few years, and he doubts many farmers will want to participate this year because of the drought.

"This is optional for farmers," he said. "We will spend more money on these efforts if we get more interest."

At the same time, most farmers do not want to see the tricolored blackbird diminish to the point of being protected under the Endangered Species Act, which can lead to costly restrictions. In the 1990s, environmentalists began pushing to get the bird protected, but they held off to see how conservation efforts would work.

After wet winters, such as 2006, there usually are more reports of large colonies nesting, especially around federal and state wildlife refuges. But California is in its third year of drought. Now farm fields may be the main option for nesting this spring.

Meanwhile, many farmers are focused on just surviving the summer of 2014.

Thousands are facing the season without water deliveries from the federal Central Valley Project — the project's first-ever widespread shutdown of ag deliveries.

Usually by March, farmers will have an early crop of oats for feed, said Michael Marsh, chief executive officer for Modesto-based Western United Dairymen, representing dairies that produce 60% of the milk in California.

"Those fields are growing weeds right now," he said. "Because of the cost of water and the need to get a good crop, it is going to be difficult to work on the worthy conservation efforts for the tricolored blackbirds."

Even with the help of farmers, the tricolored blackbird population has continued downward. Researcher Meese, who has studied the bird for years, says he thinks he has found one reason for poor reproduction.

The female birds need to eat insects to form eggs, but modern farms are effective at pest control and limit bug populations. In the past, natural wetlands filled with insect life gave the female birds and the offspring a diet they needed.

"They will eat grains that they find around a farm," Meese said. "But the vegetation is not rich enough in amino acids."

He said rangeland properties might be a better source of insects. Following the big rainfall in 2006, there was a large outbreak of grasshoppers in Merced County rangeland. Those big rainfall years are when tricolored blackbirds have abundant reproduction seasons, Meese said.

"Grasshoppers are a favorite insect for tricolored blackbirds," he said. "One colony of birds had 50,000 offspring one year. We need to help the birds find that kind of habitat."

"I'm convinced we will see the number of birds drop to 100,000 or even less." — Robert Meese, University of California at Davis researcher

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6316, mgrossi@fresnobee.com or @markgrossi on Twitter.

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