Prolonged drought forces birds from California's Central Valley fields

01/31/2014 10:01 AM

01/31/2014 10:18 AM

On a typical January in the Sacramento Valley, the rice fields are ankle-deep in water – and full of birds that use them for food and shelter.

This year, however, lack of rain and limited access to allocated water has forced rice growers to leave fields dry. The result: Waterfowl are changing where and how they congregate and when they fly. South of Sacramento, in the San Joaquin Valley, scientists have seen a significant drop in the number of migratory waterfowl.

Almost all of the 550,000 acres of rice planted in the state is in the Sacramento Valley – where farmers keep rice fields flooded in the winter as much to create “surrogate wetlands” for birds as to decompose rice straw. That flooding is considered crucial to waterfowl, given that only 3 percent of the state’s historic wetlands remain, the rest displaced by farmland and urban growth.

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