California’s family dairy farmers are helping save a threatened species—the tricolored blackbird. By allowing the birds to nest in a safe location, farmers are helping the birds reproduce and thrive, while putting in extra efforts to still ensure enough nutritious feed for their cows. With ongoing grant support, dairy farmers and their partners are making a significant difference.
In 2019 alone, 153,000 adult tricolored blackbirds were protected on 14 dairy farms throughout Kern, Tulare, and Merced counties. That represents a large portion of all the known tricolored blackbirds in California, which numbered 178,000 in 2017. A new statewide survey, expected to be conducted in 2021, will hopefully show that the population is increasing, due in no small part to the strong collaboration between dairy farmers and conservationists.
“We truly believe that every day is Earth Day for a farmer,” said Luciana Jonkman, who owns and operates Diamond J Dairy with her husband Wiebren in Merced. “It’s not one day a year. It’s every day. And by partnering with conservation, it helps us live that out.”
Found almost exclusively in California, the tricolored blackbird is North America's most colonial landbird, meaning they prefer to nest in very large groups. The nesting season for tricolored blackbirds is about 60 days, often starting as early as February. In 2019, Luciana and Wiebren Jonkman’s forage field became the temporary home to a colony of 25,000 adult tricolored blackbirds.
Historically, the tricolored blackbirds nested in wetlands. As these habitats have become limited, the birds have sought alternative locations. Fields of forage crops—grown to feed dairy cows—are attractive because the birds can build their nests a few feet above the ground, near abundant food and water. However, this poses a great challenge for dairy farmers, as the annual nesting period overlaps with harvest season, causing farmers to delay harvests. As a result, crops lose moisture, making feed less nutritious, and in most cases, unusable, leaving farmers struggling to find other sources of feed for their cows.
For the last several years, Audubon California has been partnering with dairy organizations and conservation groups to support farmers as they protect the threatened tricolored blackbird species. Since 2015, funding support has been provided through the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) of the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NCRS). In this way, the NCRS provides farmers with support, including payments to help recoup some of their financial losses.
Through the original five-year RCPP grant, more than $1.4 million in funding support has been provided. Grant partners include Audubon California, along with California Farm Bureau Federation, Dairy Cares, and several other farmer-funded groups. Partners provide partial matching funds to further support the effort through research and outreach.
Partnering organizations recently applied to renew grant funding for another five years. The California Dairy Research Foundation (CDRF) joined the alliance, pledging a total of $75,000 to support research over the next five years. Funded by dairy farmers through the California Milk Advisory Board, CDRF is an independent non-profit organization that leads and delivers research and science-based programs towards a more sustainable California dairy industry. Research efforts will explore ways to draw the birds to other more suitable habitats or otherwise minimize financial losses to dairy farms.
Efforts to create and maintain wetlands and other habitat options continue to be an important part of the partnership. However, at least in the short-term, California dairy farmers know their fields might very likely become the temporary home for thousands of birds and their young. It’s a responsibility they take seriously, as part of their stewardship efforts.
As Luciana says, “The dairy industry is critical to the species’ survival.”
To learn more about farmers’ efforts to protect tricolored blackbirds, watch Dairy Cares’ latest YouTube video.