Working Lands

Partnering with landowners to protect birds

Black-necked Stilt flying by granary.

Audubon California's Working Lands Program increases the scope and scale of bird-friendly practices on farms, wetlands and other managed lands in the Central Valley.  We do this by cultivating relationships with landowners, advocating for statewide policies that secure water and habitat for birds, and engaging our grassroots network in their communities. Our work provides protection for focal species like the Long-billed Curlew, Tricolored Blackbird, and Western Grebe.

California’s Central Valley has 205,000 acres of managed wetlands, less than 5 percent of what was historically available. The region has some of the most fertile land in the nation and boasts 7 million acres of irrigated farmland. Some types of farms – particularly those with rice and other flood-irrigated field crops – provide important and complimentary habitat to managed wetlands for birds and other wildlife. This synergy of flooded farmland and managed wetlands fundamentally links the health of Pacific Flyway bird populations and California’s farms. Audubon California has worked for 15 years to build partnerships with farmers to protect, enhance, and restore bird habitat on farmland in California’s Central Valley.

The Pacific Flyway, connecting Alaska and South America, is a major migratory pathway for birds. The Central Valley is an important stopover site for birds to feed and rest. Flooded habitat provided by Central Valley farms, refuges, and other managed areas supports between 5-7 million waterfowl and 350,000 shorebirds each year- that’s over 60% of the Pacific Flyway and 20% of the nation's waterfowl population! Over the long-term, the best opportunities to ensure the long-term conservation of birds and other wildlife in the Central Valley are to protect and enhance working landscapes for birds and wildlife while also ensuring a vibrant system of managed wetlands on public and private lands.

Examples of Audubon California's private lands work includes:

  • Audubon CA partners with other non-profits, industry partners and agencies to enhance 20% of the nearly 500,000 acres of rice grown in the state for waterbirds. Most enhancement takes the form of management practices developed in cooperation with farmers and includes extending the drawdown of winter-flooding to provide habitat during migration or building islands in growing rice to provide safe nesting habitat to shorebirds. Working together we’ve enhanced over 150,000 acres using bird-friendly management practices. You can read more here: http://calrice.org/pdf/waterbirdhabitatbro_web.pdf
  • The Tricolored Blackbird is an iconic California species whose population has seen precipitous decline over the last 100 years. In an effort to protect the remaining birds, Audubon California works closely with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the dairy industry and the California Farm Bureau Federation, to save 100% of known colonies nesting on farmland that were at risk of destruction during harvest this year. 2016 marked the first time we achieved full protection of colonies at risk of destruction on farmland in the Central Valley, saving 57,000 breeding adult Tricolored Blackbirds 
  • Audubon California partnered with The Nature Conservancy to create over 3,000 acres of shorebird habitat during April and May on private wetlands in the San Joaquin Valley by prolonging flooding and delaying drawdown of these wetlands. The prolonged flooding supported ten times the number of shorebirds than surrounding wetlands drawn down on the traditional timeframe. Learn more about this project here: http://abc30.com/news/duck-clubs-helping-to-create-new-habitat-for-shorebirds/663184/
  • We part of an innovative partnership that combines the experience and expertise of three leaders in bird conservation – Audubon California, Point Blue Conservation Science, and The Nature Conservancy – to create a better California home for migratory birds. This Migratory Bird Conservation Partnership seeks to protect, restore, and enhance lands that support bird populations in California. 

The Tricolored Blackbird in California

Grasslands Video on CVPIA with MH from Meghan Hertel on Vimeo.

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Conservation Ranching

How we empower ranchers and consumers to protect grassland birds.

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Water and Wetlands
Water

Water

Birds and wetlands in the Central Valley must receive the water they need.

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Dairies Help Save Tricolored Blackbirds
Tricolored Blackbird

Dairies Help Save Tricolored Blackbirds in the Central Valley

6 Years Strong - Audubon partners with NRCS and family dairy farmers in the Central Valley to protect threatened birds.

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Healthy Soils
Working Lands

Healthy Soils

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Fire and Drought
Fire and Drought

Fire and Drought

From fires in the Sierra to clouds of windblown dust at the Salton Sea, the effects of drought driven by climate change are impossible to ignore.

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Sandhill Crane
Birds

Sandhill Crane

California supports a large population of wintering Sandhill Cranes in its Central Valley and northeastern corner.

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Tricolored Blackbird

Latin:  Agelaius tricolor

Illustration for Tricolored Blackbird

Sandhill Crane

Latin:  Antigone canadensis

Illustration for Sandhill Crane

Long-billed Curlew

Latin:  Numenius americanus

Illustration for Long-billed Curlew

Western Meadowlark

Latin:  Sturnella neglecta

Illustration for Western Meadowlark

Black-necked Stilt

Latin:  Himantopus mexicanus

Illustration for Black-necked Stilt

Snow Goose

Latin:  Anser caerulescens

Illustration for Snow Goose

Wood Duck

Latin:  Aix sponsa

Illustration for Wood Duck

Western Sandpiper

Latin:  Calidris mauri

Illustration for Western Sandpiper

News & Updates

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Working Lands

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Colombia's Ecological Wonders: A Working Lands Exploration

Meet Xerónimo Castañeda
Working Lands

Meet Xerónimo Castañeda

Audubon California's new Working Lands Program Director has a long history in conservation and avian biology

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Working with Ranchers to Turn Rangeland into Climate-friendly Grassland Bird Habitat
Working Lands

Working with Ranchers to Turn Rangeland into Climate-friendly Grassland Bird Habitat

Audubon California joins conservation partners at California State Capitol to host briefing for state government climate leaders

Habitat on the Margins

A hedgerow in Yolo County Photo: Samantha Arthur

Restoring habitat in a landscape as highly managed as California’s often means working with pieces of land that are marginal – sometimes literally. Continuing a tradition of working with private landowners to restore habitat along farm edges, Audubon is leading a project – together with River Garden Farms, River Partners, the Center for Land Based Learning, Yolo County Resources Conservation District, and US Fish and Wildlife Service -- to install hedgerows along a one and a half mile section of road at River Garden Farms in Yolo County, along a canal near the Sacramento River. This bird-friendly habitat restoration recently installed a carefully designed suite of native plants, such as coyote brush, black willow, and toyon, along two, 1.6-mile-long linear strips along County Road 98A near Knights Landing, California.  

While hedgerows provide a number of important benefits to farmers, they can be invaluable to wildlife. They provide cover and food for pollinator insects and birds, riparian habitat when planted alongside streams (or in this case, a canal), and create wildlife corridors between habitat areas. They also prevent the drift of wind-blown pesticides or weed seeds between fields, filter water and reduce erosion. Our hope for this project is to create a habitat connection and wildlife movement corridor between the Sacramento River and the massive area of protected wetlands on Roosevelt Ranch. The overall project intent is to provide enduring wildlife habitat, with a special focus on increasing riparian bird species abundance and diversity while connecting different habitat areas, an important part of making wildlife more resilient in a changing climate. 

Are Tricolored Blackbirds Bouncing Back?

Tricolored Blackbirds Photo: Samantha Arthur

Despite small breeding colonies in neighboring states, Tricolored Blackbirds are California's blackbird. Over 95 percent of the global population resides in the state. While anyone ever seeing a teeming flock of “trikes” feeding or in flight might have a hard time believing, the bird was listed as threatened under the California Endangered Species Act in 2019. However, Audubon research indicates that populations may be beginning to recover. 

As recently as 1930, millions of Tricolored Blackbirds darkened the skies near Central Valley wetlands. As marshes were drained, the birds moved onto agricultural land, especially wheat fields. Farmers typically harvest their crop before nestlings have fledged, even wiping out the young of entire colonies in a single day as harvesting machinery moves across an occupied field. In surveys conducted from 2005 through 2009, less than half of colonies escaped destruction of their nesting areas. 

For the past eight years, Audubon has worked together with farmers, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Natural Resources Conservation Service and other partner organizations to locate colonies and encourage growers, through financial incentives, to postpone harvests until nestlings had fledged. In a study recently published in the journal Western Field Ornithologists, we found that this public-private partnership has been highly successful: from 2015 to 2022, nearly 100 percent of nesting attempts on agricultural land were conserved, and the number of birds nesting in grain fields increased by as much as 100,000. The reported increase in the population was confirmed during the most recent stateside survey in 2022. This survey is a coordinated voluntary effort, involving many chapter members across the state, to survey suitable habitat areas for birds resulting in a snapshot in time that tells us approximately how many birds are in the population.  Protection of the most at-risk nesting sites is contributing to a bump in Tricolored Blackbird populations statewide, but innovative conservation efforts must be continued if the species is to recover fully. 

How Has Drought in the Central Valley Affected Migratory Shorebirds?

Examining a Long-billed Dowitcher Photo: Samantha Arthur

It takes more work than you might think to measure the health of a Long-billed Dowitcher. Not only do you have to be up before dawn, sloshing through muddy rice fields to set up mist nets in the dark, but once the target birds are caught, you have to move fast. You have three minutes to draw a blood sample before stress hormone levels rise, throwing off measurements of their baseline condition. 

Prior research suggests Long-billed Dowitcher and other shorebirds are under a lot of stress. According to a landmark 2019 study by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, shorebird populations have declined steeply over the past 50 years, by more than a third since 1970. Audubon is working with Point Blue Conservation Science and The Nature Conservancy, as part of the Migratory Bird Conservation Partnership to study the impact of years of drought on migratory shorebirds in the Central Valley.  

The Central Valley is an ideal place to monitor shorebird populations. This 600-mile-long cleft through California’s center acts as a funnel for a wide range of birds migrating along the Pacific Flyway, including millions of waterfowl and hundreds of thousands of shorebirds, many of which spend the winter in the valley’s temperate climate. This year’s heavy rains notwithstanding, the region has also been hard hit by recent drought, shrinking wetlands at vital wildlife refuges and on private lands. While we don’t know exactly how hard the drought has been on shorebirds, we do know that shorebirds face habitat deficits even in non-drought years, especially in fall and spring, when rice fields and wetlands are largely dry.  Audubon works as part of the Migratory Bird Conservation Partnership and many other partners, including the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the California Rice Commission, to fill this habitat gap facing shorebirds. 

 While there’s no workaround for predawn hours and muddy slogs through flooded rice fields, newer technology allows us to tag these shorebirds with tiny trackers that communicate with the North American Motus Wildlife Tracking System, a network of receiving towers that get their name from the Latin word for “motion.” This is the same technology that powers Audubon’s Bird Migration Explorer, and it allows us to track where shorebirds are finding habitat… and where they’re not. Another vital piece to understanding drought affects shorebirds is to learn how the birds use existing protected lands at state wildlife areas. In coordination with California Department of Fish and Wildlife staff at state wildlife areas, we are conducting monthly shorebird surveys to understand the contribution of these protected areas to shorebird habitat use. 

The study is funded by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. 

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Audublog

Audubon California’s Samantha Arthur to Head Salton Sea Management Program

— “…a consummate professional with a profound understanding of the intersections of water, agriculture, communities and wildlife.”
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