Leonie Sherman
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Preserving Bird Habitats Amidst a Changing Landscape

This autumn, over a billion birds will pass through California, stopping to rest and refuel as they migrate south. Who knows what visual cues, tectonic tremors or internal compass guides their epic expeditions? They are only a fraction of the birds who completed the journey a century ago. In that time, the land they fly over has become a patchwork of parks and pastures, farms and factories, suburbs and superhighways.

Migratory birds don’t know if the wetlands and meadows they rely on are public or private, state, federal, or tribal. But the ownership and management of this complex quilt of property affects their ability to feed and breed. Fortunately, a network of Joint Ventures brings together different organizations to support the survival of these migratory birds.

The Migratory Bird Joint Ventures were created as a way to implement the North American Waterfowl Management Plan, a continental scheme to address waterfowl and wetland conservation. The US and Canada signed on in 1987 and Mexico joined in 1994. Five years later, Joint Ventures expanded their focus to include all birds.

Of 25 Joint Ventures (JVs) that operate across the country, six include California, a testament to the diversity and importance of habitats in the Golden State.

the acorn woodpecker (melanerpes formicivorus) and about two dozen other bird species are closely associated with oak and prairie habitats (mick thompson)

Conservation partners are restoring oak and prairie ecosystems throughout the Pacific Northwest. The Acorn Woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus) and about two dozen other bird species are closely associated with oak and prairie habitats, photo by Mick Thompson

“Joint Ventures are small organizations working across large geographies,” explains Monica Iglecia, the US Coordinator for Pacific Birds Habitat Joint Venture. Their service area extends from the redwoods of Northwest California to the barren tundra of coastal Alaska to the tropics of the Pacific Islands. Whether they work on restoration, fundraising, grant writing or research, everyone involved with JVs is challenged to think like a bird.

“Our goal is to understand what is happening at a flyway scale and take action that benefits these highways in the sky,” explains Iglecia. “We basically try to make sure the gas stations are full so that the birds can refuel and also, importantly, that the rest areas are open so they can stop as they make their way along those highways.”

Keeping the gas stations full and the rest areas open relies on coordination between farmers, politicians and conservationists. All JVs involve public private partnerships whose scope can focus beyond that of any individual or group. “JVs are the glue that holds bird conservation together, the connective tissue between organizations,” explains Hannah Nikonow, Communications Coordinator for the Intermountain West Joint Venture (IWJV), whose zone covers 11 states. “JVs are like stealth conservationists; people might not even know we’ve been engaged, but we connect many different points of bird conservation.”

pelicans and cormorants at montaña de oro state park in san luis obispo

Pelicans and cormorants at Montaña de Oro State Park in San Luis Obispo. The Central Coast contains some of the most intact coastal habitats in California, occupying an important refugia for biodiversity in the state, photo by Connor Jandreau

“I think of our role as being a matchmaker,” explains Jennie Duberstein, Coordinator for the Sonoran Joint Venture (SJV), which operates in Southern California and Northern Mexico. “We bring people together so we can do conservation planning at a landscape level. It’s not quite the ability to grant wishes, but my job is to help people do their job, so migratory birds have what they need to survive.”

What birds need to survive varies depending on the ecosystems they pass through. California’s grand Central Valley, for example, used to be a vast wetland, but agriculture has restrained all the rivers to create productive farmland. “Only 5% of the natural wetlands remain,” explains Jim Cogswell, Coordinator for the Central Valley Joint Venture (CVJV). “But it’s still one of the most productive overwintering areas for waterfowl on the planet, with an estimated five million ducks, geese and swans using the valley every winter.”

So in addition to managing the drought to deluge cycle that may become the state’s new normal, Cogswell works closely with farmers to ensure their fallow fields can support migratory birds. Rice growers used to burn off the stubble in their fields after harvest and leave the land dry for the winter. “If they flood fields after harvest and allow the debris to compost naturally, it preserves all those nutrients in place and provides surrogate wetlands for migrating wildlife,” explains Cogswell.

working agricultural lands managed for livestock also provide crucial habitat for birds, pollinators, and many other species (hannah nikonow)

Working agricultural lands managed for livestock also provide crucial habitat for birds, pollinators, and many other species, photo by Hannah Nikonow

And though an alliance between farmers and conservationists may seem unlikely, Cogswell has found enthusiastic support for his work in the Central Valley. “A lot of agricultural folks deal with birds all the time and are happy to help,” he says. “Farmers in the Central Valley could provide over 300,000 acres of wetlands, which is more than two thirds of the total wetlands available for birds state wide.”

While the CVJV works primarily with private landowners, the IWJV works mostly on public land, which is often leased for livestock grazing. Though they work with different landowners, they find similar results. “It’s not that hard to convince ranchers to work with JVs,” explains Nikonow. “What’s good for wildlife and landscape health is also good for livestock. If you have healthy native plant communities and thriving wildlife populations, that’s also good for cattle.”

Nikonow has been impressed with the dedication of the cattle farmers she works with in rural states like Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. “A lot of ranchers are invested in keeping the public lands they use healthy so they can continue to graze them,” she says. “The ranchers we work with, they love these lands as much as the next trail runner.”


Pacific Birds partners are conserving places that Dunlin ( Calidris alpina) need to breed, rest, refuel and overwinter, photo by Kim Stark

Whereas the IWJV covers almost a million square miles, the San Francisco Bay Area Joint Venture (SFBJV) covers only 10,000 square miles. Sidewalks and skyscrapers cover tidal mudflats where the sky used to darken with birds while grizzlies roamed the coast eating beached whales.

The affluence of the Bay Area offers potent solutions for migratory birds. “Anyone living in the Bay Area has a vested interest in preserving this place,” says Nikki Roach, SFBJV Policy and Communications Coordinator. “Facebook just built a new facility 15 feet below sea level right across from a South Bay restoration site. It would be great if they could help us out!” Roach oversees partnership between more than 100 different organizations to balance the needs of vulnerable human and wildlife communities in the Bay Area.

The SFBJV covers a tiny area but serves over eight million people. A dense urban population means that dealing with bureaucracy poses a significant challenge to their work. “Tons of permitting needs to happen from multiple agencies, and that slows down projects a lot,” Roach explains.

The SJV, California’s southernmost, faces different bureaucratic challenges posed by the border between the US and Mexico. “Crossing an international border often feels more straightforward for birds than it is for people,” explains Duberstein. “I could get down to Mexico in 45 minutes for a lunch meeting with a colleague, but it can take me two months just to get permission to travel internationally!”

California’s newest Joint Venture, serving the Central Coast, is sandwiched between the SFBJV and the SJV. While they build partnerships, the California Central Coast Joint Venture (C3JV) is seeking formal recognition from the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Much of their work involves restoration of endangered monarch butterfly habitat, which will help insectivorous bird populations recover.  “Like all JVs, we put humans at the center of our conservation efforts,” says C3JV Coordinator Connor Jandreau.

postharvest agricultural fields being flooded to decompose agricultural waste and provide surrogate wetlands for migratory birds in the sutter bypass

Postharvest agricultural fields being flooded to decompose agricultural waste and provide surrogate wetlands for migratory birds in the Sutter Bypass, photo by Daniel Nylen, American Rivers

“For humans to thrive, we need nature, and nature needs us,” explains Roach. “We are a part of nature, we are not apart from it.”

To fully appreciate the magnificence of migratory birds and the significance of JVs, Iglecia recommends taking a moment to slow down. “When you move quickly through the landscape, like on a mountain bike, there’s a lot you miss,” she says. “So take a moment to sit down on the side of a trail, or even even lay down and look up. There are a lot of tiny creatures that are relying on those same spaces where we play to survive.”


Main image: In migration, Western Sandpipers join other shorebirds in spectacular concentrations along important staging grounds along the Pacific Coast, photo by Russ Lowgren.

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