In California, we know our vast rice fields serve as "surrogate wetlands" for waterfowl and other wildlife. But our fields of winter wheat and triticale can play an equally important role as "surrogate uplands" where ducks and other ground-nesting birds can build nests safely hidden from predators in the dense growth. There's only one hitch.
Depending on the year, harvest begins anywhere between late May and early June, often before the majority of ducklings can hatch and get out of the field. This results in complete loss of the nest, and often the hen if she doesn’t flush away from the harvester in time.
California Waterfowl operates an Egg Salvage Program in cooperation with farmers to rescue nests prior to harvest or field work in agricultural fields. Nests are located and delivered to a licensed hatchery where eggs are incubated, and ducklings reared for five weeks with minimal human interaction before being released into the wild.
But the very best thing is for ducklings to be reared by their mothers, so in 2020, we introduced our Delayed Wheat Harvest Incentive Program, which provided incentives to farmers of $30 to $40 per acre to delay wheat and/or triticale harvest until July 1-15. Incentives offset costs associated with delaying harvest.
Farmers have been some of the best allies waterfowl have in this state, and we're excited to provide an opportunity for farmers to help boost our local mallard population.
Why California Waterfowl cares
Wheat is incredibly attractive to nesting ducks. Winter wheat fields are seeded in the fall and grow throughout the winter. By nesting season, a lush, dense stand of winter wheat near a planted rice field looks like a great nesting location with brood-rearing habitat just a waddle away. Several studies have found ducks may favor winter wheat over natural uplands when they’re available, and winter wheat in rice country can produce far higher mallard nest densities and nest survival than anything in the Prairie Pothole Region.
Unfortunately, wheat acreage has been declining along with its poor market price, and the Sacramento Valley's once robust mallard population is declining with it. We may not be able to stop the market forces that are reducing wheat acreage, but we can work to make the Valley's remaining wheat as productive as possible for waterfowl.
Want to help?
California Waterfowl applied for, but did not receive, grant funding to continue the program in 2021, so we are seeking donations that will allow us to expand the program's coverage and gather data that demonstrates its efficacy.
Applications for 2021 have closed.
Documentation and resources
Letters of support (PDFs):
Article: Mallards need more than water to rebound (originally published in California Waterfowl, Fall 2019)
- Fleskes et al. 2014. The ring-necked pheasant in California – current status and factors possibly related to population trends
- 2019 CDFW Breeding Population Survey
- Coates et al 2013. Annual Data Summary 2013-2014 Monitoring and Research on Ring-Necked Pheasant
- 2006 Central Valley Joint Venture Implementation Plan
- Coates et al. 2016. What's driving pheasant declines
Watch ducks in wheat: