Grains of Change
In California’s Central Valley, where a quarter of the food varieties we eat are farmed, a new generation of growers is teaming up with conservationists to make sure that rice and long-billed curlews will always mix.
I’ve come to California to search for the link between sushi and the long-billed curlew. On this February day the rice paddy before me is filled with a few inches of water and the crumpled, mud-sopped straw that last summer was three-foot-high grassy stalks top-heavy with rice panicles. Not just any rice. Virtually all of the rice harvested here in the Sacramento Valley, at the northern end of the vast Central Valley, is short and medium grain—premium varieties that find their way into nearly every sushi roll sold in the United States.
In the distance, hundreds of white-fronted geese rise like surf off the fields, then settle back down. “My father and grandfather would have been amazed to see how many geese are here now,” says Don Traynham, a third-generation rice grower who works these fields with Mike Kalfsbeek on White Road Farms. Traynham, 37, is part of a new wave of rice farmers who understand their fields’ importance to birdlife. Throughout the morning he stops to point out sandhill cranes, egrets, and ibises—though only one long-billed curlew, probing the muddy water for invertebrates.
With a checked brown and beige upper body, plain buff belly, and cinnamon underwings, the long-billed curlew is North America’s largest shorebird. Long-bills stand nearly two feet tall and have a wingspan approaching three feet. More imposing yet is the bill they are named for—up to eight inches long and curving downward like a scythe. It serves as the perfect tool to capture shrimp and crabs burrowed deeply in tidal mudflats and earthworms buried in pastures. This impressive bird is known to attack nearly any predator that ventures too near its nest, including hawks, eagles, coyotes, and humans. It flies directly at the intruder at great speed, looking like, as one observer noted, a guided missile, veering off at the last second, then circling around to attack again.
Once fairly common and widespread, the long-billed curlew has gone the way of many shorebird species, its population declining and its range shrinking. Dwindling grasslands have left only relict long-bill populations breeding in the West. For years scientists thought the bird’s prospects were bleak enough that of the 53 shorebird species breeding in North America, it was one of only five listed as “highly imperiled” by the U.S. Shorebird Conservation Plan, a comprehensive attempt by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and more than two dozen partnering organizations to gather all the pertinent facts on North American shorebirds. For some time, the entire long-bill population has been estimated to be 20,000 birds.
At the same time the long-bill was disappearing, a similar fate befell the Central Valley’s flora and fauna. An ancient lake bed, roughly 450 miles north to south and generally 40 to 60 miles east to west, this flat landscape was once dominated by grasslands threaded with riparian woodlands and opening into freshwater marshes and oak-grass savannas. Pronghorn antelope, elk, and mule deer fed on the grasses, and grizzly bears, wolves, and mountain lions fed on them.
In the mid-1800s the Gold Rush that lured people westward forever changed the face of the valley, reducing the pronghorn and elk to small, isolated populations. By the late 1800s grizzly bears and wolves had vanished altogether. A few mountain lions survived, but today the largest predator common to the Central Valley is the coyote. Less than one percent of the valley’s remaining grasses are native. Farm fields have replaced more than 94 percent of the freshwater marshes, and 99 percent of the riparian woodlands have been degraded or destroyed.
This is the bad news.
But if you are accustomed to strawberries on your cereal in the middle of winter, you might need to think twice before you criticize this land transformation. The Central Valley, with its Mediterranean climate of mild, wet winters and hot, dry summers, has more than 81,000 farms and ranches on 14.5 million acres of agricultural land that produces fully one-fourth of the varieties of food items we place on our tables. More than 300 crops are grown here, from lemons, asparagus, and bell peppers to olives, almonds, and spinach.
Yet “we’ve discovered that the ag fields are important to all kinds of wildlife during the winter,” says Gary Langham, director of bird conservation for Audubon California. The long-billed curlew in particular favors rice and alfalfa fields as well as pastures. So for a week in late February, Alex Hartman, shorebird conservation biologist at Audubon California’s Sacramento office and an expert on long-bills, takes me all over the Sacramento Valley, where most of the long-billed curlews congregate this time of year. We watch for them as we travel through farmland and pastures, a calming landscape of expansive fields and sky that reaches a flat horizon in all directions. Along the way we talk with rice growers and conservationists.
After several days of rain and bad luck we have seen only three long-bills at relatively close range and a few distant flocks in flight disappearing into charcoal skies. This should be a good time to see the birds; two weeks from now the majority will be gone. The long-bills are early migrants, leaving for their northern breeding grounds in March.