Earth Log

Valley blackbird gets new protections as its numbers drop

California has extended emergency protection to the dwindling tricolored blackbird, which often faces danger as it clusters in San Joaquin Valley dairy silage fields to nest.

The state Fish and Game Commission, meeting in Los Angeles, voted Wednesday for a 180-day ban on harassing, harming or killing the native birds. The protections could mean farmers can’t shoot at flocks or harvest when the birds are present.

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife will decide whether to enact permanent protections.

Nearly all tricolored blackbirds live in California — an estimated 3 million of them in the 1930s, but only about 145,000 now.

The birds have nested in the 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.

Now, they cluster by the tens of thousands in farm fields to nest, usually in a silage crop for a dairy. When the such a colony is discovered, Audubon California works with the farmer to delay the harvest.

In one example, 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. But Audubon and the farmer came to a financial settlement to save the birds.

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The Natural Resources Conservation Service, part of the Department of Agriculture, has been providing money to help buy the farmer's crop. But funding is usually uncertain, officials say.

The state's protection of the birds under the California Endangered Species Act may raise the profile of the problem enough to attract more funding, said Neil Clipperton, scientist for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

"The listing could help in securing a longer-term grant to protect these birds," he said. "The nesting in the silage fields is an ongoing threat."

Clipperton said state Fish and Wildlife would like to eventually increase the population of tricolored blackbirds and provide an alternative habitat to the silage fields where many of the birds have died in the past.