Earth Log

Protection for tricolored blackbirds raises fears, questions among dairy leaders

The dairy industry across the San Joaquin Valley is worried about California’s new endangered species protection for the tricolored blackbird, which nests in dairy silage fields here.

And dairy leaders are disappointed because they had been trying to help save the bird for years.

Now they wonder: Will game wardens stop them from harvesting if the birds are found in their fields? Will they face big fines? What will that mean for their businesses? The Valley is the biggest dairy producer in the country.

The questions are being researched right now, said Michael Marsh, chief executive officer of Modesto-based Western United Dairymen, representing about 800 dairies in the state.

For certain, killing these birds is now unlawful under the state’s endangered species law, which has provisions for fines. The emergency listing was made last week by the California Fish and Game Commission. Now the state Department of Fish and Wildlife will review the decision and make recommendations.

“We’re perplexed about this listing,” Marsh said. “Dairy farmers care about this issue. We’ve been working for many years on it. Does this mean no more collaboration to help the birds? What else does it mean?”

Dairy owners and California Audubon have been working together to avoid tragedies of timing. These birds nest in farm fields during weeks when harvesting must be done.

The farmers can’t wait when the time is right to harvest. Delay would diminish the quality of the crop. But birds are hatching about the same time. It would be a killing field if harvesters mowed down the wheat or other forage.

Last year, about a third of the 145,000 or so tricolored blackbird population nested in a Madera County field. Using U.S. Department of Agriculture money, the dairy farmer and Audubon were able to delay the harvest and get silage from another location.

“It was a critical time both for the nesting birds and the dairy operator,” said ornithologist Jeff Davis of Colibri Ecological Consulting in Fresno. “It was not easy to save the birds. It’s always a struggle.”

Davis, a member of the Fresno Audubon Society, has been working on this issue for years. The emergency listing of the bird last week was a good thing, he said. The Center for Biological Diversity, a national environmental advocacy group, had petitioned for the listing.

The population of this bird, once in the millions, has diminished as development and agriculture expanded in the Valley. The decline has been well-documented for the last couple of decades.

In 2008, the tricolored blackbird population had was about 395,000. This year, it was estimated at 145,000. About 95% of the birds are found in California.

Davis said there may be some alternatives to make life easier on dairy operators and tricolored blackbirds. Perhaps Valley wildlife refuges could develop more attractive habitat for these kinds of birds.

The foothills also offer breeding sites for the birds, Davis said. Up to a third of the bird population have been found in the foothills of the Sacramento Valley, he said, nesting in Himalayan blackberry. But the blackberry often is in patches and not nearly as widespread as a silage field.

Another problem is the lack of insects. Modern pesticides often eliminate a lot of the insects that tricolored blackbirds eat. The young birds feed exclusively on insects, Davis said.

“So along with the habitat, you need to try to grow insects,” he said.

I spoke with a state Fish and Wildlife scientist last week about the tricolored blackbird. He told me the agency would be focused on ways to improve the habitat and build up the numbers of tricolored blackbirds.