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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Western Floods Good for Migratory Birds

Air Date: Week of

While the recent flooding in the western United States has been devestating to humans, the conditions have made life good for some creatures. Luce Salas reports from California where some migrating birds are thriving amidst their newly flooded habitat.


CURWOOD: A new round of winter storms is threatening to cause more floods in already saturated northern California. Meanwhile, families and businesses in the state's central valley are still trying to recover from the devastating New Year's floods in the area. Those floods caused an estimated one and a half billion dollars worth of damage to communities along the San Joaquin and other rivers. But for at least one community, the floods brought a long-needed boost. Luce Salas reports from Rancho Cordova just east of Sacramento.

(Bird calls)

SALAS: Starting in the fall thick flocks of geese, terns, ducks, swans, and other water fowl from as far away as Alaska begin their yearly migration to warmer climes in Mexico. It's called the Pacific Flyway and California's a major thoroughfare. Historically, the central valley had over 4 million acres of wetlands during the winter rainy season, providing a vast area for migrating birds to feed and rest. Because of water diversions, agriculture, and urban sprawl, less than 5% of the wetlands remain, and the number of winter birds has fallen. But millions still squeeze into the few wildlife refuges and artificial wetlands on dormant rice fields. Bill Huffman is with the Farmer's Rice Cooperative near Sacramento.

HUFFMAN: This is what we call our bed and breakfast program for millions and millions of ducks and geese that come here and winter in the Sacramento Valley. It's wonderful to go out and see 3,000 tundra swans out there in our family rice fields.

SALAS: A few years ago Bill Huffman and a few other rice farmers began leaving behind a portion of each harvest for the visitors, and they have seen a steady increase of migratory birds. But the drought of the late 80s and early 90s cut into that progress. Andrew Ingles is regional biologist for Ducks Unlimited. He says the few wet spots were too crowded.

INGLES: When they flock in areas of drought into these wildlife areas it increases the chance that disease is going to decimate a population. The main disease here in the valley that we get in the winter is called falcholera, which is a viral disease that affects birds' nervous system. When we have floods the birds can spread out across the valley floor. They'll still be in flocks, but they'll be smaller flocks.

SALAS: That's just what's happened this year in the central valley. Mr. Ingles says the torrents have created an abundance of puddles and shallow wetlands over a large expanse of the valley. This also means less fierce competition for food. Ironically, while the flooding has helped the water fowl, it has created a problem for wildlife officials.

INGLES: It's going to be very difficult to survey birds this year because there are birds everywhere but birds nowhere. The birds are spread out so far and they're in so many flocks that they're going to be very difficult to count.

SALAS: Indeed. It's now difficult for bird watchers and hunters to get close to water fowl because of washed out roads, deep water, and broken levees. But initial surveys earlier in the fall indicate this year's population of migratory birds to be the highest since the 1950s, when another period of heavy rains struck the state. And wildlife watchers are ecstatic. David Rosen is also with Ducks Unlimited.

ROSEN: Ducks, water fowl in general, tend to be a good indicator species of the health of our wetland ecosystems. And if water fowl populations are doing well continentally, then most likely a lot of other wetland associated species are going to be doing well, also.

SALAS: Here in the central valley, these species include salamanders, insects like Mayflies, mammals such as beavers, and plants like the California hibiscus, which is a candidate for threatened status. But David Rosen says the floods have provided these species only temporary relief. He says a lot more conservation and habitat improvement are needed to ensure a place in the central valley for wintering birds. Even during normal years. For Living on Earth I'm Luce Salas.



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