Tricolored Blackbirds Part of Dairy’s Conservation Story

Taylor Hillman Dairy & Livestock, USDA-NRCS

The tricolored blackbird colony at Diamond J Dairy

“I was shocked to hear 10 percent,” Diamond J Dairy Co-Owner Luciana Jonkman said when she learned how the flock of tricolored blackbirds who had inhabited one of their silage fields measured up to the entire population. “If that’s 10 percent, there really are very few.”

The tricolored blackbird is federally listed as a Bird of Conservation Concern and the California-native is considered threatened in the state. Jonkman and her husband Wiebren learned that a colony of 25,000 birds called one of their Diamond J Dairy fields ‘home’ for about 60 days. “10 percent at 25,000, across the entire globe? That’s pretty amazing,” Jonkman said.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) said that tricolored blackbirds normally nest in the Central Valley on or near wetlands and dairy fields. Jonkman said someone brought the colony to their attention and learned that there were conservation and good stewardship support for them to pause their harvest.

NRCS said with a partnership between Audubon, Western United Dairymen, California Farm Bureau and DairyCares, farmers and ranchers like the Jonkmans can receive compensation for the unharvested crop that usually is unusable once the birds leave. “Does it cover all of the costs? Absolutely not,” Jonkman said. “However, we made that decision at the snap of a finger…It doesn’t have to be a lose-win situation. This conservation partnership and bridging the gap between mainstream and farming, it’s a win-win.”

Fourteen dairies have enrolled 600 acres in the delayed harvest compensation program, according to NRCS. In a recent release, NRCS stated “The last population estimate was done in 2017 when there were 178,000 birds. If the population is of a similar size this year, that means that over 70 percent of the birds were found on dairies.” 

Jonkman considers her and her husband beginning farmers and ranchers. She said it’s important to share these positive stewards-of-the-land stories. “Essentially we are first-generation farmers and we need to have a sustainability story that everyone in the general public can relate to,” Jonkman said. “We believe it’s a privilege to provide food for the public and we want to keep that right. Conservation is just part of our story.”