Buy-out program successfully protects imperiled California species.

San Francisco, Calif. — Through cooperative agreements with farmers in California’s Central Valley, a historic one hundred percent of rare Tricolored Blackbird colonies on agricultural fields were protected during the 2016 harvest season. Working with the USDA California Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and their Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) Tricolored Blackbird Project, Audubon California helped seven farmers delay the silage harvest, saving roughly 57,000 birds on 378 acres.

“More than 90 percent of the world’s Tricolored Blackbirds live in California, so we have a special responsibility to protect them,” said Samantha Arthur, conservation program manager at Audubon California. “Reaching this milestone shows what private landowners can do to help a declining species and make a big conservation impact. There are many other threatened species we hope to protect through collaborations like this.”

Audubon California collaborates with NRCS, Western United Dairies, Dairy Cares, Sustainable Conservation and the California Farm Bureau Federation to create agreements with dairy farmers to delay harvests to allow the young Tricolored Blackbirds time to fledge — an approximately 40-day process. Agreements with dairy farmers have saved many thousands of blackbirds since 2011, but this is the first year every colony found in an agricultural field was protected.

Tricolored Blackbirds, which once numbered in the millions, live almost entirely in California, and have long been of concern to conservationists. A comprehensive survey of Tricolored Blackbirds in California in 2014 confirmed that the population of the rare species declined 44 percent since 2011. Habitat loss and breeding colony disruption are considered the main causes of its decline.

Colonies were discovered in Kern, Tulare, Fresno, and Riverside counties. Approximately $231,227.37 was spent by NRCS in the silage program to offset fannerlosses. In addition, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife worked with a farmer in San Benito County who had a nesting colony of 10,000 birds.

“This Tricolored Blackbird effort continues to be a chining example of farmers, the environmental community, and government achieving success together through partnership,” said Alan Forkey, NRCS California assistant for programs. “RCPP provides the framework for effective collaboration between different partners on similar types of projects in the future.”

Tricolored Blackbirds historically nested in vast wetlands of the Central Valley, but, for decades, the birds have established large nesting colonies in triticale, a plant that dairymen feed their cows. Unfortunately, harvest season coincides with the birds’ nesting season. When fields are harvested before young birds have fledged, thousands of eggs and nestlings are lost.

The California Fish and Game Commission voted to designate the species as a candidate for state endangered species listing in January 2015 and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife is now reviewing current scientific information on the species. The United States Fish and Wildlife Department is also reviewing a federal endangered species listing.