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California farmers paid to protect tricolored blackbirds

June 17, 2011 |  5:27 pm

Tricolored blackbird 2
Paying three farmers to delay harvesting their fields through the nesting season resulted in the protection of an estimated 50,000 tricolored blackbirds in Riverside County and Central California, where the species’ population has plummeted in recent years.

Audubon California negotiated the agreements, two of which were funded by the California Department of Fish and Game. However, Audubon California used revenue from its online “5 dollars/5 birds” fundraising campaign to protect the Riverside County colony.

In that case, a dairy farmer near Hemet was compensated to delay cutting tall grass on a 30-acre field holding 4,000 tricolored blackbirds, which is roughly 70% of the birds left in Southern California.

“When you crunch the numbers, the amount we paid worked out to roughly $1 per bird,” said Audubon California spokesman Garrison Frost.

Tricolored blackbirds once numbered in the millions. Today, the population, which has one of the smallest ranges of any bird in North America, has declined to about 400,000.

“With the continuing loss of native marshes and grasslands, the species has become dependent on agricultural lands, and most of the large colonies nest in grain fields,” Frost said. “Because tricolored blackbirds nest in just a few large colonies, a farmer harvesting a field unknowingly might wipe out a huge portion of the entire species’ young in just a few minutes."

"More than 95% of the world’s tricolored blackbirds live in California,” he added, “so we have a special responsibility to protect them.”

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 -- Louis Sahagun

 Photo: Tricolored blackbird Credit: Lee Karney/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

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