swans taking flight from flooded rice field

Episode 15: Where the Wild Things Are

Their journey is long and exhausting. For those who follow their travels, it’s exhilarating.

Every fall and winter, the Sacramento Valley becomes a key rest and refuel stop for millions of birds, as part of their annual migration along the Pacific Flyway, a wildlife highway in the sky.

Immediately after harvest, a shallow amount of water is added to rice fields, which quickly become home for ducks, geese, swans, cranes, shorebirds, Bald Eagles and many other migrating wildlife. Generations ago, rice fields were predominantly burned after harvest, to eliminate rice straw. Starting 30-years ago, growers shifted to shallow-flooding fields to decompose straw. It timed perfectly with the Pacific Flyway migration.

Charley Mathews Jr
Rice grower Charley Mathews Jr

California has lost the vast majority of its original wetlands. However, Sacramento Valley rice fields have proven vital as ‘surrogate wetlands’ for nearly 230 wildlife species. In fact, rice fields provide more than 60 percent of the fall and winter diet for the 7 to 10 million ducks and geese every fall and winter in the Central Valley. 

“It’s very unique,” remarked rice grower Charley Mathews, Jr, whose Marysville-area fields are frequently loaded with Tundra Swans, geese, ducks, and many other birds. “It’s kind of like having a national park in your own backyard. It’s very easy to access. There’s no payment or parking you have to pay for. Anybody can come out here at any time. It’s a great place!”

Xeronimo Castanada
Xeronimo Castanada of Audubon California

Rice fields work well with local wildlife refuges to not only provide habitat, they afford bird watchers amazing viewing opportunities.  Great viewing opportunities include the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge in Willows, Colusa National Wildlife Refuge and Gray Lodge Wildlife Area, among other valley stops. Also, be sure to keep watch for wildlife in nearby rice fields while on your journey. 

“They key in on the rice fields that are flooded as good habitat,” said Xeronimo Castanada with Audubon California, among those in the conservation community working with rice farmers to maximize wildlife habitat. “It provides food. It provides shelter. It draws in millions and millions of ducks and geese, hundreds of thousands of shorebirds, and at any given time, you could be driving down the highway, and you’ll see a field just covered in waterfowl. Especially when they take off in flight, it’s something really special to see.”

Luke Matthews
California Rice Commission Wildlife Programs Manager, Luke Matthews

Luke Matthews is Wildlife Programs Manager with the California Rice Commission. He works with rice growers and many partners to help maximize their conservation work. He said there are currently three key programs to aid conservation – a winter flooding program with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Bid4Birds through the California Ricelands Waterbird Foundation and an upcoming program with the US Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, providing a wider suite of wildlife-friendly farming practices for growers to enroll in. 

“People are really interested,” Matthews said. “These farmers really love their land, and they love to increase the wildlife benefit whenever they can.”

Seeing magnificent wildlife in rice country is not only special to bird lovers, it’s appreciated by rice growers, as well.

Josh Sheppard
Rice grower Josh Sheppard

“I find myself taken aback sometimes,” said rice grower Josh Sheppard in Butte County. “It’s wonderful when you see millions of birds that are using an area, and, within a specific field, you’d have thousands of geese and ducks, all coexisting, all using that space. We’re not using these fields for growing crops during the winter time, but it’s got a great use. It’s got an important use, as far as the eco-diversity and the biological helpfulness that we can provide to the migratory waterfowl. It’s a just a really great feeling I have as a rice farmer, knowing that benefit exists, with just a little bit of water.”

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Episode Transcript

Jim Morris: If you think about rice in California, these are the sounds that likely come to mind first: tractors working, high-speed low flying airplanes planting seed, and GPS-guided harvesters bringing in America’s sushi rice. But in the fall and winter, the sounds from Sacramento Valley rice fields are different. We have ducks and geese by the millions, joy-filled sandhill cranes, large flocks of white-faced ibis, and majestic tundra swans.

Jim Morris: While many wildlife species thrive in rice fields throughout the year, including the fantastic American bittern, the original angry bird, black terns, the tremendously photogenic shorebird, the black-necked stilt, it’s not unusual to hear from a western meadowlark in rice country. But there’s something extra special about fall and winter in rice country, it’s when rice fields really come alive.

Jim Morris: Welcome to Ingrained, the California rice podcast, I’m your host, Jim Morris, proud to have worked with California farmers and ranchers for 30 years. And this year’s rice harvest is wrapped up, but fields are still full with equally precious contents, wildlife, millions of birds. I’m speaking with Josh Sheppard, a rice grower in Butte County. And Josh, you put just a few inches of water in the fields after harvest, it helps break down the straw, and then wildlife shows up. What kind of wildlife species do you see this time of year?

Josh Sheppard: We see a wide range of species. The ducks, everybody knows the mallards, the pintails. The teal are just awesome to see. They frolic around these fields, they’re just playful like schoolyard children. And it’s just great to see that. The bigger species, some geese, snow geese, dark geese, specklebellies, accompanied by the swan, a bigger creature and the sandhill crane, one of my favorites, a prehistoric long-legged bird makes a very unique sound.

Jim Morris: And I have to thank you Josh, because you let me know every year when you see your first sandhill, So I’m very grateful for that. And they are impressive six and a half foot wingspan, tremendous vocalizations, and a lot of joy too, which is something we need right now. And we also have bald eagles in the area. So how frequently do you see bald eagles in this Richvale Butte County area?

Josh Sheppard: I anticipate a lot of eagles showing up. This area in Richvale always hosts dozens of eagles. It’s not uncommon to see 10 roosted in a tree. And we have a tree on one of our farms that is known as the eagle tree because that is a common perch for the eagle.

Jim Morris: How does it feel once you have the rice in, that you now see all of the wildlife here and that added value that rice provides in the Sacramento Valley?

Josh Sheppard: I find myself kind of taken aback sometimes when you see millions of birds that are in an area and then, within a specific field, you’d have thousands of geese and ducks, all coexisting, all using that space. And it’s just wonderful to know that our off-season, we’re not using these fields for growing crops during the winter time, but it’s got a great use, it’s got an important use as far as the eco-diversity and the biological helpfulness that we can then provide to the migratory waterfowl and just a really great feeling I have as a rice farmer, knowing that that benefit exists just from a little bit of water.

Jim Morris: I’m speaking with Charley Mathews Jr, a rice grower in Yuba County. Charley, tell me a little bit about this season and what you see out here.

Charley Mathews Jr: Well, there’s lots of activity that’s for sure. Harvest has quieted down. We had a good harvest season, no rain, dry, everything in and out of the field. But the thing that happened was that the geese showed up extra early. Not sure why that is, but usually for some reason, they know that when they get here, there’s going to be water, there’s rice left in the fields to eat, and we’ve been part of this migration pattern longer than human existence out here. And so timing is everything. You want to get harvested before the geese and the ducks show up and it worked out perfect this year. If you can hear in the backgrounds, there’s thousands of snow geese, dark geese, Canadian geese, swans, ducks, everything’s out here. It’s a busy place. I live out here. I get to listen to this at night. It’s kind of similar to somebody living next to the ocean, or a stream, or a highway. There’s that constant background noise, but it’s the noise that you know you’re home.

Jim Morris: How has rice farming changed, and it’s certainly today very complimentary with the Pacific Flyway migration, but has that always been the case?

Charley Mathews Jr: As far as we can tell it has. Rice in this area has been grown just about a hundred years now. In the early days, it was very labor-intensive, water was readily available, but machinery, equipment, and things that made efficient were not. The early rice varieties took a long time to grow, the very long growing season. That harvest was typically late October into November, which is the rainy season, there’s photos out there of people in the mud trying to gather rice up. But the problem at the time, the other challenge was the migrating birds. Migrating birds thought this was the greatest thing, they could come to these fields full of rice and eat the rice crop. That was a problem for the farmer. We consider ducks and geese at the time a pest. But, over time, we changed kind of our methods. The refuges you see now in the Sacramento Valley were originally created by rice farmers.

Charley Mathews Jr: They wanted a place for ducks and geese to go to that was flooded, didn’t have rice fields in it, just to get the pressure off their own fields. And that works well today. Our rice varieties are shorter season, we harvest much faster. So the timing was perfect this year. We were all harvested and then the geese and ducks started showing up.

Jim Morris: There aren’t a lot of options for these millions of birds. We’ve lost a lot of our historic wetlands. So how does it make you feel as a rice grower that you have this growing season of a food, and then you turn into a tremendous environmental benefit for the state?

Charley Mathews Jr: Yeah, it was kind of very fortunate. When I was younger, the standard practice after harvest was burn your rice fields. Well, that created air pollution, and as our urban centers grew larger and larger, we became the nuisance. And so we figured ways around that. And so, the practice now today is flood your fields immediately after harvest, to help in the decomposition of that straw, and fortunately for geese and ducks, that worked great for them too, so now we see them feeding in these areas. There’s more flooded fields today than there ever has been. It’s been a great replacement for all those wetlands that were lost over the last century. So we’ve all benefited. Very interesting.

Jim Morris: You have a very large bird that is a neighbor and can be noisy, but is a spectacular bird. Tell me about the Tundra swan.

Charley Mathews Jr: Oh, they’re interesting. The tundra swan is actually quite a large bird. It’s about a 20 pounder, about a five and a half foot wingspan, long neck, very distinguishable when they’re mixed in with ducks and geese because they’re the biggest bird out there. Very beautiful.

Jim Morris: Birdwatching is phenomenal in this area. It is also important to be safe. And can you comment on that, about how people should safely look at the birds, because you may be overwhelmed when you see thousands of birds, but you do want to respect the traffic.

Charley Mathews Jr: There’s occasional traffic out here. We get large groups of birdwatchers that follow each other around, and drive slowly. There’s plenty of places. You just have to find them to pull off the road and park safely. Some of these roads are narrow and there’s no place to get out of your car. You want to make sure you don’t stop in the middle of the road. This isn’t something like Yellowstone where traffic is a normal practice, just stops. But here there’s areas you need to find, there’s nice, quiet country roads. There’s plenty of room to pull off and take some great pictures.

Jim Morris: I’m with Luke Matthews, Wildlife Programs Manager with the California Rice Commission. And Luke, the Sutter Buttes are in the backdrop, as well as thousands of birds. What do you like about this time of the year?

Luke Matthews: I just love the sheer number and variety of waterbirds that come up here and use these rice fields in the Sacramento Valley every winter.

Jim Morris: What are some of the things that you’re doing, with the help of others to help maintain and enhance the wildlife habitat that we have in Sacramento Valley rice fields?

Luke Matthews: We work with a variety of partners on different programs. Right now, there’s three I’ll talk about. The first is the State Winter Flooding Program, and we work with California Fish and Wildlife to help get acres out to ensure that flooding stays on the landscape. And there’s about 45,000 acres in that program right now. A second program is something called Bid4Birds. This is something that I help run through the California Ricelands Waterbird Foundation, and it focuses on providing key shallow flooded habitat for shorebirds on the shoulder seasons of the winter flooding period. And that’s sort of the late spring and the early fall time-frame. And then the third is a program that’s not quite up and running yet, but it’s with the Natural Resources Conservation Service. And it’ll provide a wider suite of wildlife-friendly farming practices for growers to enroll in.

Jim Morris: So rice farmers and the rice industry work with state and federal groups as well as conservation groups. How important are those partnerships to making sure that this is going to be continued, this environmental habitat for generations to come?

Luke Matthews: It’s absolutely critical, Jim. Without our conservation partners, we couldn’t do it. And the partnerships range far from working with federal entities like US Fish and Wildlife, and Natural Resources Conservation Service down to State Wildlife Management. And then our conservation partners working with birds, from the smallest of shorebirds all the way up to ducks, geese and swans.

Jim Morris: Timing is important, in terms of water on the landscape, and also the depth of water. Can you explain a little bit? I mean, it’s not a one size fits all approach for the wildlife that we see, because we are talking about more than 200 different wildlife species in rice country.

Luke Matthews: Some of the smaller birds need shallower habitat, right? They have shorter feet, shorter beaks. And so, some of our programs focus on providing that shallow habitat and in an earlier time frame because they migrate down earlier. Whereas now, sort of in the winter time, a lot of those other birds are gone and the waterfowl are here in mass, the ducks and geese, and they prefer deeper depth. So you really need to manage water levels and times to really benefit the wildlife to the best of our abilities.

Jim Morris: You provide an assessment service where you meet with growers. Tell me a little bit about how that helps.

Luke Matthews: So, I will meet with interested rice farmers. Though the way it works is they’ll contact me and then I’ll go out to the property and just do a biological assessment of the property and talk with that farmer about their goals and objectives for conservation on their property. And then, I’ll pair them up with either some of the existing practices and programs I just talked about. And if that’s not a great fit, then we’ll figure out some other small-scale habitat enhancement that maybe they can do on their own, to really just ramp up the wildlife benefit of their ranch or of their property.

Jim Morris: How interested have the people that you’ve communicated with been in terms of trying to make the most out of what they have on the rice farm?

Luke Matthews: People are really interested. These farmers really love their land, and they love to increase the wildlife benefit whenever they can. So folks are pretty interested in it.

Jim Morris: Maybe an unfair question, but all of the different wildlife to choose from, do you have a favorite or favorites?

Luke Matthews: Wow, that’s going to be hard for me to answer. I’m a waterfowl biologist by training, so people would probably think I’ll pick a duck, but to be honest, I would go with the prairie falcon. You don’t see it as much here in the Sacramento Valley, but they do come down and I just love watching those big, beautiful falcons flying around and hunting in the Sacramento Valley.

Jim Morris: I was going to give you a really poor answer and say, well, the next new one that comes in every fall and winter is my favorite. But I don’t know for me, I would just throw out sandhill cranes, tundra swans, and bald eagles. And we’re having, I think, more bald eagles in the Sacramento Valley, and I think people are surprised at that. 10, 15 minutes from the State Capitol, you can see a bald eagle, that’s pretty impressive.

Luke Matthews: Yeah, it really is. The sheer variety of species and numbers of species, particularly in the winter time right now is just astounding if you’ve never seen it. It’s something to behold.

Jim Morris: I’m speaking with Xeronimo Castaneda, conservation project manager with Audubon, California. And before we get into the rice wildlife connection, Xeronimo, can you tell me a little bit about the overall bird population in the US and how that’s going?

Xeronimo Castaneda: Recently, there were two studies published that highlighted the significant declines of bird populations across North America. And it’s impacting all species of birds, in particular grassland species and shorebirds.

Jim Morris: Based on this, it sounds like habitat, preserving it, enhancing it, is more important than ever. Tell me about how rice fields fit into the equation.

Xeronimo Castaneda: Here in California, the majority of wetlands, natural wetlands, have been lost to conversion to urban or agriculture. Rice plays a really critical role in the Pacific Flyway along the West Coast, because, as many folks know, to grow rice, you have to flood the fields. And that provides a surrogate habitat for a lot of waterbirds that used to rely on native wetlands. And so, rice fields play this really important role to continue to provide habitat for waterbirds, ducks, geese, and a lot of shorebirds that have been impacted.

Jim Morris: What level of cooperation have you seen from the rice growers that you’ve worked with and spoken with?

Xeronimo Castaneda: Oh, the cooperation has been really great. There’s a lot of partnerships that have been forming over the last 20 plus years throughout the Sacramento Valley between Audubon and some other NGO organizations and rice growers throughout the Valley. It’s been a really collaborative effort. Everyone’s come to the table to have constructive conversations about how it can work for both the growers and how wildlife can benefit from these different programs.

Jim Morris: What are some of the thoughts that go through your mind when you see it at peak migration? And, by the way, if somebody hasn’t seen it, what can they expect in terms of just the numbers, the variety, et cetera, that are going to spend their fall and winter here in the Sacramento Valley?

Xeronimo Castaneda: This is one of the most special times a year to be out in the Sacramento Valley. We’re right along the Pacific Flyway. So as birds move from their breeding grounds in the North and start moving South, they follow the Central Valley. They key in on the rice fields that are flooded as good habitat. It provides food, it provides shelter. It draws in millions and millions of ducks and geese, hundreds of thousands of shorebirds. And at any given time, you could be driving down the highway and you’ll see a field just covered in waterfowl. And then especially when they take off and fly, it’s something really special to see.

Jim Morris: So, we do have a challenge with the bird population on the decline. Are you optimistic that there could be something better coming, based on these kinds of partnerships with rice growers?

Xeronimo Castaneda: Absolutely. All sides are happy with the outcomes. It’s a good example of how environmental conservation groups and agriculture can work together to provide benefits to wildlife, and in this case, to waterbirds. And so, hopefully we can use that as an example of how other agricultural sectors can figure out a way to work cooperatively to provide and create habitat.

Jim Morris: The California landscape has changed so much over the generations, with tremendous losses of our traditional wetlands. Fortunately, there is progress through ingenuity, partnerships and rice. Those shallow flooded fields are home for millions of creatures, great and small. As we navigate through life’s challenges, a trip to rice country could be a chance to exhale, and to appreciate nature and all it has to offer. Here’s Charley Mathews Jr.

Charley Mathews Jr: Oh, it’s a great place. It’s very unique. It’s kind of like having a national park in your own backyard. Very easy to access, there’s no paying, there’s no parking that you have to pay for. Anybody can come out here at any time. It’s a great place.

Jim Morris: My appreciation for our interview subjects, rice growers, Josh Sheppard and Charley Mathews Jr, Luke Matthews with the California Rice Commission, and Xeronimo Castaneda with Audubon, California. I thank them for their time and passion to help the wildlife population thrive. You can find more information including past episodes at podcast.calrice.org. Please subscribe, tell your friends, and we invite all of your comments and questions. Thanks for listening.