In California's Sacramento Valley, the potential value of rice fields as habitat for waterbirds may vary with harvest method, post-harvest treatment of rice straw (chopped, burned, plowed), and extent of flooding. Recent changes in rice harvesting methods (i.e., use of stripper-headers) and a legislative mandate to decrease burning of rice straw after harvest may alter habitat availability and use. Thus, we investigated species richness and community composition of nonbreeding waterbirds during October-March 1993-94 and 1994-95 in rice fields of the northern Sacramento Valley. Most (85-91% of land area) rice was conventionally harvested (i.e., cutter bar), and the remainder was stripped. Rice straw was left untreated in more than half of fields (52% in 1994 and 54% in 1995), especially in stripped fields (56-70%). In fields where farmers treated straw, the most common management methods were plowing (15-21%), burning (19-24%), and chopping (3-5%). Fields became increasingly wet from October through March as seasonal precipitation accumulated and farmers flooded fields to facilitate straw decomposition and provide habitat for ducks. Species richness of waterbirds was greater (P < 0.002) in conventionally-harvested fields than in stripped fields; within harvest methods, species richness was consistently greater (P < 0.01) in flooded than non-flooded fields. By contrast, species richness did not differ among straw treatments (P > 0.23). Species richness in stripped fields probably was low because foraging opportunities were limited by tall dense straw, decreased grain density, and infrequent flooding. We recommend that land managers wishing to provide habitat for a diverse waterbird community harvest rice using conventional methods and flood fields shallowly.
Additional publication details
Waterbird communities in rice fields subjected to different post-harvest treatments