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Where the Blackbirds Sing

Impact with RCPP

A Merced, California dairy family is playing a key role in protecting imperiled Tricolored Blackbirds, a species Federally listed as a Bird of Conservation Concern and as a State of California Threatened Species.

A large colony of the birds has been nesting at Diamond J Dairy for several years, and Luciana and Wiebren Jonkman halted their silage harvest in March to allow the birds to complete their nesting cycle. Now the colony, which peaked at 25,000 birds, is nearly ready to take flight. “At least 10 percent of this entire species is nesting on this one Merced farm,” said Aaron Rives, soil conservationist for USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. “Without the help of the farmers, this species could be set back for years. And once it’s gone, that’s forever.”

Most Tricolored Blackbirds reside in California’s Central Valley, with populations estimated at 1.5 million birds in the early 1930s. Areas that were once wetlands and open fields became developed into some of the world’s most productive farmland, causing Tricolored Blackbird populations to decline. Because Tricolored Blackbirds are colonial nesters, thousands of birds may impact—and be impacted by—farming operations near their nests. By delaying harvest, farmers allow eggs to hatch and young birds to grow old enough to leave the nest, which can take up to 45 days after hatching.

Knowing that farmers were key to helping recover this species, Audubon California submitted a proposal to the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). The three-year project was approved in 2016, with NRCS providing $1.1 million. California Audubon and other partners offered an additional $900,000 in partner contributions.

Through the RCPP program, the California Audubon created a protocol for farmers and ranchers like the Jonkmans to report colonies in grain fields. In turn, ag producers can receive compensation for the unharvested crop that usually is unusable once the birds leave.

“We are grateful for the tricolored blackbird restoration project,” said Luciana Jonkman.  “We are a first-generation farming family, and we know that sustainability is vital to our farm families and our community. At Diamond J we are constantly looking for opportunities to partner with the community, the state, and the federal resources. I hope that folks will see this as a huge win-win for conservation and dairy food security in the state of California.”

While Jonkman noted that the compensation for delaying harvests in the fields with the blackbird colonies doesn’t cover their expenses completely, she added, “We made that decision at the snap of a finger…It doesn’t have to be a lose-win situation.”

The Jonkmans consider themselves beginning farmers and ranchers. She said it’s important to share these positive stewards-of-the-land stories. “Essentially we are first- generation farmers and we need to have a sustainability story that everyone in the general public can relate to,” Jonkman said. “We believe it’s a privilege to provide food for the public and we want to keep that right. Conservation is just part of our story.”

The last Tricolored blackbird population estimate was done in 2017, when there were 178,000 birds, with over 70 percent of the birds found on dairy farms. Two NRCS wetland projects have also provided nesting sites for nearly 20,000 birds. In 2018, the RCPP project saved all known California blackbird colonies.

With the help of NRCS and partners at the California Audubon, Western United Dairymen, California Farm Bureau, and DairyCares, farmers’ participation in this program has resulted in nesting success for tens of thousands of birds.