Six valley dairy farmers delay harvesting to protect blackbirds

jholland@modbee.comJune 19, 2013 

Blackbird 2

Photo by Dave Menke A federal program aims to rebuild populations of the tricolored blackbird by paying Central Valley farmers to delay harvesting of certain feed crops in spring. The birds nest in the crops because most of their natural habitat is gone.

DAVE MENKE — Dave Menke

    alternate textJohn Holland
    Title: Staff writer
    Coverage areas: Agriculture, Turlock; local news editor on Sundays
    Bio: John Holland has been a reporter at The Bee for 12 years. He has a journalism degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and previously worked at the Union Democrat in Sonora and the Visalia Times-Delta.
    Recent stories written by John

— Six dairy farmers in the San Joaquin Valley delayed harvesting some of their feed crops this spring so blackbirds could nest in the fields.

The farms in Tulare and Kern counties are part of an effort to protect the tricolored blackbird, which lays its eggs in maturing feed crop fields in lieu of marshland habitat that has mostly vanished.

Western United Dairymen, based in Modesto, is part of the effort, which involves Audubon California and the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The federal agency paid the farmers $385 per acre to compensate them for reduced feed quality, disruption to work schedules and delays in planting summer crops, spokeswoman Anita Young said Monday. The spending totalled $122,425.

The birds are listed by the federal government as a "bird of conservation concern" and by the state as a "species of special concern." They are less numerous than redwing blackbirds in the valley.

Tricolored blackbirds nest at high density in oats, barley and other feed crops that are planted in winter. Biologists in the program look for these nests and try to get the farmers to delay harvesting until the young birds have fledged.

The effort protected an estimated 65,000 blackbirds this year — about a fifth of the total population, 95 percent of which is in California.

"This shows our members' commitment to a sustainable ecosystem on and around their farms," said Paul Sousa, environmental director for the dairymen's group, in a news release. "This voluntary program benefits all parties as conservation is achieved in a way that allows farms to continue to be productive."

The incentives are available in the north valley, but none were paid this year, Brown said. She said the future of the program depends on the five-year farm bill now being considered in Congress.

The partners are working on a long-term plan that would provide nonfarm nesting areas for the blackbirds.

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Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at or (209) 578-2385.

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