Stories in California

California Migratory Birds

The global benefits of saving the pacific flyway

A flock of birds fly over a field in the early evening.
Migrating birds flying over flooded rice fields in Colusa, California. © Drew Kelly/TNC

With bird habitat vanishing before our eyes, fewer birds are gracing our skies. Once so numerous that their cries and beating wings created a deafening sound over California’s great Central Valley, migrating flocks are disappearing. They have fallen to habitat destruction, water and food shortages and climate change. As the silence grows, so do the ominous implications.

Find out how The Nature Conservancy is spearheading BirdReturns, a pilot project combining crowd-sourced data, hard science and economic incentives to provide pop-up habitats for birds on rice fields in the Sacramento Valley.


California is a linchpin of the Pacific Flyway, a grand route of avian migration that spans from Alaska to South America. Birds traveling this pathway come to California to feed, rest and winter in the state’s wetlands and forests. They carry nutrients that enrich our soils—including agricultural lands—and play a vital role in the ecosystem as both predators and prey. Shorebirds, waterfowl, songbirds and raptors also generate billions of dollars in revenue from birdwatchers and hunters.

California’s wetlands once supported 40 to 80 million waterfowl each winter. Today, more than 95 percent of wetlands have been converted to farmland, cities and other uses. Despite the habitat losses, California still supports some of the largest concentrations of wintering waterfowl and shorebirds found anywhere in the world. The majority of these birds rely upon a quilt of managed wetlands and bird-friendly agricultural lands. But with California continuing to grow, these lands, and the water that supports them, are under constant threat.


The Nature Conservancy has worked for more than 50 years on projects that help protect migratory birds in California. Despite our success in watersheds such as the Cosumnes and Sacramento Rivers, migratory species continue to decline—not just in California, but globally.

Under these urgent circumstances, we have devised solutions for safeguarding migratory birds that can be implemented on a broad scale. Our plan is threefold:

·         Protect and restore critical habitat over large areas

·         Protect and enhance bird-friendly agricultural lands

·         Secure adequate water delivery to wetlands and compatible agricultural lands

With partners including the California Rice Commission, Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Point Blue Conservation Science, The Nature Conservancy will build on techniques we have developed over decades of work with California watersheds. With a goal of creating one million acres of Central Valley wetland habitat, our creative approach ensures that we can protect nature and help farmers thrive while meeting the needs of our growing planet. And it means one of nature’s great shows—the Pacific Flyway migration—will be witnessed by generations to come.