Help Conserve Bird Habitat by Putting California Rice on Your Plate

By Gustave Axelson
November 3, 2014
eat california rice One practical way to make a difference for birds is to eat more California-grown rice—farms offer habitat for shorebirds migrating along the Pacific Flyway. Photo by James Morris.

Want to support bird habitat on your dinner plate? Consider swapping out potatoes with California rice. Rice farms in that state’s Central Valley provide critical migratory shorebird habitat, thanks in part to an innovative collaboration between eBird, The Nature Conservancy, and California rice farmers.

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California rice fields are habitat for 187 species of birds. In winter, flooded rice fields provide hundreds of thousands of acres of wet habitat for 5 to 7 million ducks (or nearly 60 percent of all waterfowl migrating along the Pacific Flyway each year). The Sacramento Valley and its rice fields are designated as habitat of international importance in the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network.

With 95 percent of the natural wetlands in the Central Valley drained and gone, rice fields provide a decent habitat surrogate. One acre of rice provides two-thirds of the waterfowl food found in an acre of wetland, and most rice fields have been established on private lands that previously saw other, less bird-friendly agricultural uses. With only about 200,000 acres of wetlands left in the Central Valley, flooded rice fields actually triple the amount of wet habitat available to birds. The 2013 State of the Birds report called rice fields “a cornerstone of wintering waterbird habitat.”

dunlins in a california rice fieldDunlins forage in a California rice field. Photo by Drew Kelly.

Perhaps the poster bird for California rice is the White-faced Ibis. The ibis population in the state had declined to below 200 individuals in 1977, but bounced back through the 1980s at the same time planted rice acreage was expanding in the Central Valley. During the 2013–2014 winter, Nature Conservancy biologists counted 8,500 White-faced Ibises in the flooded rice fields of the BirdReturns project alone.

Rice farmers and birds actually have a somewhat symbiotic relationship. As birds dabble and pick through the fields, they stir up and help decompose the prior growing season’s straw, which is crucial for preparing the fields for seeding. In return, the birds get to feed on the leftover rice grains. “With somewhere around 350 to 450 pounds of rice grain per acre, there’s a lot of energy in that,” says rice farmer and avian ecologist Doug Thomas.

Rice farming also helps with neighboring wetlands management, even in a time of severe drought. That’s because water drained off rice fields runs into federal, state, and local wildlife refuges, providing more than half the water supply for the preserves in the Central Valley. Pesticide levels are managed and measured; the water flowing from rice fields meets strict California water quality requirements.

Like buying Bird-Friendly coffee or beef, you can vote with your food dollars for bird habitat by eating California rice. One easy way to do it—eat sushi. “If you eat a sushi roll in the United States, you’re most likely eating California rice,” says Thomas.

You can also swap out potatoes or bread and choose California rice as a bird-friendly starch on your plate. Buy your rice online directly from Doug Thomas’s farm, or just look for California on the label of rice in your local grocery store. Several California chefs have gathered up their favorite recipes for cooking with this bird-friendly starch.

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