Califonia Bountiful

Safe haven

May/June 2018 California Bountiful magazine

Farmers take threatened birds under their wing

The eye-catching tricolored blackbird was once abundant in California and historically nested in wetlands. They now often use cropland. Photo by James Scott, courtesy of Audubon Society

Tulare County dairy farmer Frank Mendonsa took part in a program that's strictly for the birds—and he couldn't be happier.

"Dairymen wake up every morning, and what do they do? They're taking care of their families, their employees, their cows," Mendonsa said. "It's our nature to be caretakers to start with."

In 2015, Mendonsa not only took care of the cows, he was also among the Central Valley dairy farmers safeguarding colonies of tricolored blackbirds. The birds, candidates for state and federal endangered-species lists, historically nested and raised their young in Central Valley wetlands. Such lands are now rare, so the birds went looking for new habitat, and found it—in fields where dairy farmers raise forage crops such as triticale and corn to feed their cows.

"What they're looking for is a combination of water, food in the form of insects, and upright
vegetation for them to sow their nests in," said Samantha Arthur, a project manager for Audubon California. "Any forage field grown for dairies across the Central Valley would provide those three things."

The birds nest in colonies of 10,000 to 20,000, and sometimes as many as 40,000—the better to protect themselves from predators such as coyotes, raccoons, cattle egrets and black-crowned night herons, Arthur said. They'll usually nest twice a year: first in late winter to early spring in the southern San Joaquin Valley, and later in the Sacramento Valley.

The birds, Arthur said, once numbered in the millions but dwindled to 145,000 by 2014; about 178,000 birds were counted in 2017.

To help save the rare songbird, a farmer-conserva-tionist partnership took wing in 2006. A collaborative effort of the California Farm Bureau Federation, Audubon California, Western United Dairymen, Dairy Cares, Sustainable Conservation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service, the unique program helps enable farmers to delay harvest in fields where the tricolored blackbirds have nested. Delaying harvest allows nestlings a chance to fledge, keeping them out of harm's way.

When he found tricolored blackbirds nesting in his crops, farmer Frank Mendonsa delayed harvest until the young birds hatched and were able to fly.

Mendonsa said once he learned the birds' story, deciding to join the program was easy.

"The birds needed protecting," Mendonsa said. "They were in my fields. Once we realized how much damage would be done to those colonies if we went ahead with harvesting, it was kind of a no-brainer to protect them."

Dairy farmers who find tricolored blackbirds nesting in their fields start by calling their local NRCS field office. Jesse Bahm, an NRCS biologist based in Fresno, said his agency's main role is to provide financial and technical assistance. Delaying harvest reduces the amount of homegrown feed for the cows, so NRCS will compensate participating farmers, Bahm said. Once the presence of a colony is established, biologists monitor the birds and advise the farmer when the last fledglings have left.

In 2017, seven colonies with about 77,000 birds were protected, Bahm said.

Mendonsa spoke highly of the partnership.

"I didn't know what to expect," he said. "When I met with the biologist and the Audubon people and the NRCS, it truly was a positive experience. I had a good time learning and going through the process with them."

The birds move from field to field each year. They haven't returned to Mendonsa's land yet.

"I've been looking for them," he said. "In 2015, I didn't know what to look for, but now I drive through those same fields, and I'm looking to see if we have any tricoloreds out there."

Kevin Hecteman

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