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Drought in California likely to Affect Migratory Birds

The western part of the ABA Area has been experiencing drought conditions for the better part of the last three years, and none have experienced drought quite to the degree that California has. At last check, 80% of the state is in “extreme” drought, the highest level as determined by the National Weather Service. The demand on water is high in California, where agriculture, human population, and increasingly, wildlife, are all demanding an increasingly critical seat at the table with regard to appropriation of water resources.

Snow Geese and ducks at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, photo via wikipedia

Snow Geese and ducks at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, photo via wikipedia

Every year, wildlife refuges in central California are host to hundreds of thousands of migratory waterfowl. Those numbers are even looking to increase by 8% this year, as many tundra-breeding waterfowl populations are booming. But this year the exceptional drought conditions may have them arriving to refuges that are mere shadows of their normal selves. And for birds looking to spend a leisurely winter gorging on typically plentiful wetlands, it’s bound to be a difficult season, and one with little in the way of options for migratory birds.

“Like coming home from vacation and having the water shut off and the grocery store down the street is closed,” said Point Blue biologist Dave Shuford.

Waterfowl refuges have senior water rights and usually get allocated water from the federal and state water projects, but conservationists are worried about having water available in the Fall.

“We’ve had water available for the growing season, but come end of October, it’s very unlikely we’ll have water to flood the rice fields and rice fields have become at least 50 percent of wintering waterfowl habitat,” said Ducks Unlimited director of government policy, Mark Smith.

Fewer options for migratory waterfowl means the birds will be crowded onto what few wetlands will be ready for them, increasing the likelihood that diseases like botulism and cholera can spread. More, food resources can be rapidly exhausted in such a situation with many birds, particularly young ones, starving to death.

The situation in California is unprecedented, and in a sense it’s impossible to say precisely what the birds will due in the face of limited acceptable wintering habitat. But it’s clear that we’re going to find out the answer to that question sooner than we’d like.