In California's Central Valley, gregarious Tricolored Blackbirds congregate in huge breeding colonies up to 35,000 birds!
This rare species are just as dazzling as the Red-winged Blackbird. They have brilliant red shoulder patches with a white wing bar and a buzzing, catlike song.
As 95% of wetlands have disappeared from the Central Valley, threatened Tricolored Blackbirds adapted by nesting in dairy forage fields.
California family dairy farmer Luciana Jonkman says, “the birds are attracted to the dairies because it’s a safe environment for them to nest and there’s an abundance of food for them to feed on.”
However, there was a unforeseen danger to the birds. Tricolored Blackbird chicks often have not yet left the nest when farmers need to harvest their crop. If harvested, tens of thousands of nests and chicks can be lost in a single field. If we didn't take immediate action, the species' population could collapse.
To protect these chicks, Audubon established a conservation partnership with Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in 2015 to support dairies to delay harvests so chicks could successfully fledge. This program compensates dairies to help recover their losses from delaying harvests.
Starting in 2015, there were 67,000 Tricolored Blackbirds found on dairies. By 2021, more than 170,000 adult Tricolored Blackbirds were protected on 11 dairy farms across four counties in the San Joaquin Valley. Similarly, the 2020 season saw an estimated total of 177,000 adult birds. These represent a record-high number of Tricolored Blackbirds being protected on dairy farms. In just 6 years, dairies have helped to save more than 825,000 Tricolored Blackbirds.
“The fact that the birds return to nest on dairy farms year after year shows how important our forage fields are to the species’ survival and to biodiversity as a whole,” said Vander Woude, who owns and operates Vander Woude Dairy in Merced County. “Environmental stewardship is part of our job. We take pride in being caretakers of the land and the animals that live here.”
Working lands like this dairy represent one of the best hopes for conservation. While this year’s report is promising for the species, there is no doubt that climate change and worsening drought conditions will continue to pose challenges to Tricolored Blackbirds and farmers, making ongoing partnership essential.
We are grateful to our key partners, including NRCS, California Dairy Research Foundation, California Farm Bureau Federation, Dairy Cares, California Dairy Campaign, Milk Producers Council, and Western United Dairies.
"We believe that everyday is Earth Day. It’s not just one day. It’s everyday. By partnering with conservation, it helps us live that out," shares Jonkman.
To learn more about Audubon's work to protect this priority species and address drought and groundwater in the Central Valley, watch a recent webinar on Saving the Tricolored Blackbird, hosted by the Wintu Audubon Society in Northern California