Once bittern, not shy of rice

This is an unusual situation. Here we have one of Australia’s most threatened birds and it turns out that their stronghold explicitly comprises agriculture — in the form of rice crops. Nowhere else in the country can we find such large numbers of the globally endangered Australasian bittern.

Quick take:

  • The large numbers of bitterns found in rice fields is a strong case that food production and nature conservation can be potential partners.
  • Several key factors had pointed toward widespread and regular breeding, but until January 2014, there had been no conclusive evidence of any bittern breeding in rice crops. 
  • Bitterns show a strong preference for aerial sown rice, probably because earlier inundation is important so that potential prey, such as frogs, can establish populations sooner.
  • While there are clear environmental costs of extracting water from rivers for irrigation, the surrogate habitat values of rice fields are not widely appreciated in Australia.

Matt Herring, Murray Wildlife, Neil Bull Ricegrowers Association of Australia, Andrew Silcocks, Birdlife Australia and Mark Robb, Coleambally Irrigation Cooperative Limited

IREC Farmers’ Newsletter – Large Area No. 191: Spring 2014. Read the full newsletter here.