S1 E4: Ducks Love Rice

They are one of the world’s iconic birds. They quack and waddle on land, which is a sharp contrast to their grace in the water and air.  The Sacramento Valley is home to millions of ducks, and rice fields play a vital role in their lives.

Helping ducks has been the passionate pursuit of Virginia Getz for 20-years. Virginia manages conservation programs for Ducks Unlimited’s Western Region (DU), including California. Keeping rice farming strong is critical to maintaining a healthy Pacific Flyway duck population.

“Ninety-five percent of the wetland habitat that historically occurred in the Central Valley has been lost, and waterfowl populations are now heavily dependent on agricultural lands, primarily rice,” according to Getz.  

Sacramento Valley rice fields provide more than 60 percent of the fall and winter diet for the millions of ducks and geese in the Central Valley. DU works with the Rice Commission and growers to help keep rice strong, which, in turn, maintains vital wildlife habitat. 

California Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot recently visited Butte County and had positive remarks about the Sacramento Valley ecosystem and the vital role rice plays for wildlife habitat.

“We are seeing these flooded up rice fields teeming with birds on the Pacific Flyway,” Crowfoot said.  “It always reminds me that we can find paths forward in California that protect water for people and nature.”  

Ducks are inspirational to many, including artist René C. Reyes.  “Ducks are an appealing subject because they are a great mix of awkwardness and beauty. On land, ducks waddle and they quack, but in the air, they are quite amazing. In water, where they are in their element, that’s when their beauty comes out and, in my art, that’s what I try to capture.”

Here’s a link to where you can find learn more about waterbirds in the Sacramento Valley and how you can support conservation.


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Episode Transcript

René Reyes: When I see thousands or millions of birds flying overhead during their migration, which they’ve been doing for thousands of years, I see a glimpse of our past.

Jim Morris: Artist, René Reyes, captures incredible detail in his wildlife paintings, including ducks, one of the most popular and beloved birds in the world.

René Reyes: They are a great mix of awkwardness and beauty. On land ducks waddle, and they quack. But in the air, they’re quite amazing. They’re a sight to see. But in water, where they are in their element, that’s when their beauty comes out. And in my art, that’s what I try to capture.

Jim Morris: The Sacramento Valley offers vital habitat for ducks. California has changed a lot since its early days, and there’s a challenging balance between managing our environment, cities, and farms. Fortunately, with cooperation and creativity, there is a way to make it all work. 

[Music Intro]

Jim Morris: Welcome to Ingrained, the California Rice podcast. I’m your host, Jim Morris. I’m at the DeWit Rice Farm in Sutter County, one of the places where ducks thrive. With me is Virginia Getz of Ducks Unlimited and one of my colleagues at the California Rice Commission, Luke Matthews, wildlife programs manager. Virginia, you cover the Western region for Ducks Unlimited. What area do you cover?

Virginia Getz: Yes, I’m the manager of conservation programs for DU’s Western regional office. I oversee our group of biologists that are responsible for developing and delivering our on the ground conservation work in a four-state area, which includes California, Nevada, Hawaii, and Arizona.

Jim Morris: So when you look at California, specifically, in the effort to preserve the duck population for future generations, what are some of the challenges that are specific here in California?

Virginia Getz: Well, increased competition for water is the major issue that we face and it’s growing in importance daily. And a particular concern is the risk of reduction or loss of water for rice straw decomposition.

Ninety-five percent of the wetland habitat that historically occurred in the Central Valley has been lost and waterfowl populations are now heavily dependent on agricultural lands, primarily rice. The economics of growing rice has been good and that’s kept a large land base in rice production, but that could change. Population growth and urban encroachment are continued threats, and we also are seeing a conversion of ricelands to trees and vines, crops which are not waterfowl friendly.

Jim Morris: So what can DU do to try to maintain that rice habitat and a healthy duck population here in the Central Valley?

Virginia Getz: DU has an excellent working relationship with the rice industry and rice farmers in the Sacramento Valley. Ricelands are essential for supporting wintering waterfowl populations and therefore we work closely with rice interests on policy, outreach, and funding programs to help maintain a large rice base in the region. We provided an incentive program for farmers to implement winter flooding as an alternative to burning, to decompose their rice straw, and that helped establish flooding as a standard practice for straw decomposition. DU also hold 12 conservation easements that permanently protect about five thousand acres of ricelands in key areas in the Sacramento Valley.

Jim Morris: So Luke Matthews, what are some ways that you work with Ducks Unlimited and other conservation groups to maximize this duck habitat?

Luke Matthews: So, what we do is we apply for federal grants with Ducks Unlimited and many of our other partners to get more funding to provide habitat on the landscape, in these agricultural fields, that’s beneficial for waterfowl, but also for shorebirds and many other waterbirds that use these rice fields in the Sacramento Valley. Some of them need deeper water, shallower water, versus earlier water and later water. So, a lot of the work we do is providing water on the landscape, but at the right time and at the right depths.

Jim Morris: So Virginia, looking back at ducks here in the Central Valley, can you give me a few numbers about how large the population is here?

Virginia Getz: Yeah, the Central Valley is one of the three most significant areas for wintering waterfowl in North America. And therefore, it’s one of our highest priority areas for conservation. The Central Valley is truly the heart of the Pacific Flyway. It’s the single most important area for wintering waterfowl in the entire Flyway, and it supports sixty percent of the migrating and wintering waterfowl in the Flyway. Now in an average year, that translates to more than five million ducks and more than two and a half million geese.

Jim Morris: If you take rice out of the equation, or if you dramatically reduced the rice acreage, what happens to the duck population?

Virginia Getz: Well, ninety-five percent of the wetland habitat that historically occurred in the Valley’s been lost. Currently, about sixty-eight percent of the nutritional needs of wintering waterfowl in the Central Valley are being met by agricultural lands, primarily rice. The dependency of waterfowl and agricultural lands varies by basin. And both the Sutter and American basins, where wetlands are extremely limited, agricultural lands provide more than ninety percent of the nutritional needs of wintering waterfowl. If we were to lose about fifty percent of the rice acreage that’s out there now, we would be able to support one million less waterfowl in the winter.

Jim Morris: When you look at hunting season in the Sacramento Valley, how much does this actually contribute to conservation?

Virginia Getz: There are currently about 205,000 acres of managed wetlands that remain in the Valley. And two-thirds of those are in private ownership. Most of those wetlands are being managed for waterfowl hunting. We’re going to continue to count on private wetlands to meet the needs of wintering waterfowl. Waterfowl hunters are very passionate about waterfowl wetlands and the waterfowling tradition, and they have a long history of habitat conservation. Waterfowl hunters purchase both state and federal duck stamps, which provide funding for wetland habitat protection, restoration enhancement, and they contribute significantly to the local economies of the areas in which they hunt.

Jim Morris: You’ve been at Ducks Unlimited now for 20 years and when did your passion for wildlife start and how ideal is the job you have right now?

Virginia Getz: I’m a wildlife biologist by training and I knew I wanted to be a wildlife biologist when I was very young. I’ve always had a love for the outdoors and wildlife. and habitat. And wildlife conservation is at the heart of my personal values. But back in 2000, DU had an opening for a regional biologist in the Intermountain West. And that region included portions of Northeast California and Southern Oregon, areas in which I had hunted waterfowl and spent time recreating and I really loved that landscape. So, this was an opportunity to work for the resource, to focus on waterfowl and wetlands and what more could biologist ask for? So, I took that job.

Jim Morris: What are the absolute keys, Virginia, to maintaining this duck population for future generations to enjoy?

Virginia Getz: We need to maintain the wetland base that we have and we need to increase the acreage of wetlands on the landscape. And we need to maintain a large rice base here in the Valley and ensure that we have sufficient waters to support both the wetlands and the ricelands. The way we got to where we are with wetlands and ricelands is through cooperation. We have a strong history of partnering here in the Valley. And that way of working together cooperatively to accomplish conservation is the key to the future.

Jim Morris: That’s where telling the story of the rich environment of the Sacramento Valley is so important. The greater the understanding of how special this region is, the better chance we have to maintain it. Here’s what California Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot had to say during his recent trip to the Gray Lodge Wildlife Area in Butte County.

As you’re driving in the Sacramento Valley, there’s obviously rice fields this time of year filled with birds. What are your thoughts of this important environment in the Sacramento Valley and the need to do all we can to conserve this massive migration that we see?

Wade Crowfoot: Well, one of my favorite road trips in this job is actually moving through the Sacramento Valley in the winter. Where you’re seeing these flooded up rice fields, teeming with birds on the Pacific Flyway. And it always reminds me that we can find paths forward in California that protect water for people and nature. When I come up here and I see these ducks, these waterfowl on the river, it’s just tremendously inspirational.

Jim Morris: Preserving this jewel of our state includes careful stewardship of a much debated subject in California – water. Listen to these encouraging comments from Secretary Crowfoot.

Wade Crowfoot: There’s entrenched narrative in California that water is all about conflict and it’s all about making trade-offs. When in fact, we know we need secure water supplies for farmers and communities, while continuing to improve habitat for fish and wildlife. And what’s happening with rice growing in the Sacramento Valley is proving that we can balance these needs.

Jim Morris: That’s how things get done in this Valley. Through passionate people like Virginia Getz.

Virginia Getz: Oh, I’m living the dream, working for Ducks Unlimited.

Jim Morris: And dedicated groups working cooperatively for a greater goal: maintaining and enhancing our diverse ecosystem here in the Sacramento Valley.

That’ll wrap up this episode of Ingrained, many thanks to Virginia Getz and all of those at Ducks Unlimited, Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot, Luke Matthews, René Reyes, and the many people who appreciate and work to preserve wildlife. A reminder to go to podcast.calrise.org for more information and to subscribe. Thanks for listening.