Science Spotlight

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  • May 6, 2021
tractor plowing a field preparing the field to plant

A three-acre field is planted with a combination of sunflower and safflower seeds to provide food for mourning doves – and a place for dove hunters to hunt come Sept. 1.

Scientist Brian Young sitting in the back of a truck with seeds
Oroville Wildlife Area Manager AJ Dill sits on the back of a flatbed truck stacked with sacks of safflower and sunflower seed and fertilizer for the spring planting season.

Scientist Brian Young holding soil in a field
Fish and Wildlife Technician Brian Young holds handfuls of safflower and sunflower seeds prior to planting.

Field of safflower and sunflower seeds
Upland habitat planted in the fall is lush and colorful in the spring providing important nesting habitat for wild mallards and Canada geese near the shores of the Thermalito Afterbay.

It only took Brian Young about two laps around the freshly plowed, three-acre field before the red-winged blackbirds started showing up.

A fish and wildlife technician at the Oroville Wildlife Area in Butte County, Young was piloting a John Deere 5075M utility tractor along the shores of the Thermalito Afterbay in mid-April, scattering a mix of sunflower and safflower seeds behind him. The red-winged blackbirds were taking full advantage of the easy meal.

Once seeded, Young would retrace his route, distribute fertilizer and hope for the best. A quarter-mile away along a gently sloping hillside another John Deere tractor was at work covering up with soil another plowed, seeded and fertilized field.

Spring is planting season at the 12,000-acre Oroville Wildlife Area and at dozens of other California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) properties up and down the state as crop fields are prepared for mourning doves – and the dove hunting season that begins in September. And while planted to attract doves and provide public land dove hunting opportunities, the crop fields also will provide food and habitat for all manner of wildlife, including those red-winged blackbirds.

“Native songbirds, tricolored blackbirds, wild turkeys – you name it. Just about anything that flies – with the exception of our raptors – will be out here feeding in these fields throughout the fall,” explained AJ Dill, the Oroville Wildlife Area manager since 2013.

Safflower and sunflower are mourning dove favorites. A couple weeks before the Sept. 1 dove season opener, the Oroville Wildlife Area’s tractors will be back to knock down the safflower and sunflower stalks and scatter the seeds to the ground where doves can access them more easily.

Mourning doves are especially attracted to harvested agricultural fields and the food plots at Oroville and other CDFW properties can provide fast action for public land dove hunters on opening day and places to hunt throughout the season. At Oroville, however, hunters have to do their homework. Unlike some other wildlife areas, Oroville does not provide hunting maps or directions to its dove fields. Hunters have to scout and find them on their own. A Type C wildlife area, Oroville is open daily to dove hunting during California’s two dove seasons. No special permits, reservations or fees are required provided hunters are otherwise properly licensed.

This spring, the Oroville Wildlife Area will plant about 60 acres of safflower and sunflower among 16 different fields varying in size throughout the wildlife area. The dove fields are spaced out to spread out the hunters, prevent overcrowding and foster safer hunting conditions.

How productive the fields ultimately become will depend on many factors – but none more so than weather.

“Everything we do out here is dryland farming. We don’t irrigate. So we really need a shot of water – just a little bit of rain – to get things going,” Dill said.

A significant portion of the Oroville Wildlife Area’s upland habitat work also takes place in the fall when 80 acres of nesting cover are planted annually – typically some combination of vetch, barley, peas, wheat, oats, clover and grasses – along the shores of the Thermalito Afterbay to benefit nesting ducks and geese in the spring. The wildlife area maintains about 240 managed acres of upland nesting habitat in total, the dense cover providing nesting hens, their eggs and newborns safety and protection from predators.

As with the planted dove fields, the lush, colorful, nesting habitat provides secondary benefits to other grasslands-dependent species, particularly pollinators such as bumblebees, honeybees and butterflies. The loss of grassland and upland habitat throughout California has contributed to the decline of wild mallards, wild pheasants, pollinators and other species and adds a sense of urgency and heightened importance to the upland habitat work at the Oroville Wildlife Area and other CDFW properties throughout the year.

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CDFW Photos

Categories: Science Spotlight
  • March 5, 2020

A wild turkey inside a cardboard box to keep it calm is weighed as CDFW Environmental Scientist Laura Cockrell records the data at the Upper Butte Basin Wildlife Area.
Environmental Scientist Laura Cockrell records the weight of a wild turkey at Little Dry Creek prior to banding.

A banded wild turkey’s two legs show off the two different type of bands CDFW biologists affix to the birds at the Upper Butte Basin Wildlife Area. One band is riveted closed; the other clamped close until its two butt-ends are touching.
Wild turkeys banded in 2019 and 2020 are given one traditional, butt-end band on one leg and one rivet band on the other.

Silvery metallic butt-end bands in the hand of CDFW environmental scientist Laura Cockrell.
Environmental Scientist Laura Cockrell shows off the supply of butt-end bands prior to banding.

Turkey hunters in parts of Butte and Glenn counties who are skilled and lucky enough to bag a tom this spring may be in for a pleasant surprise: Their bird may be sporting some jewelry – a band on each leg.

Since early February, CDFW biologists at the Upper Butte Basin Wildlife Area – supported by the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) – have been busy trapping and double-banding wild turkeys at the wildlife area’s Howard Slough and Little Dry Creek units. So far this year, some 45 turkeys have been banded, which include toms, hens and young males known as “jakes.”

The staff and volunteers have just about a month and a half to trap and band all the wild turkeys they can between the close of the waterfowl hunting season and the start of the spring wild turkey season in mid-March. It’s part of an innovative research effort aimed at better understanding the characteristics, growth rates, habitat use, range and abundance of the growing population of wild turkeys using the wildlife area.

Bird bands long have been an important research tool for biologists and considered a prize among many hunters who are allowed to keep them after reporting the band information. The Upper Butte Basin turkey banding project is the only one of its kind in the state, making those turkey bands a rare commodity and a valuable potential data source.

In addition to the banding, the turkeys are weighed, sexed and measured at various points before being released.

The wild turkey study began at the wildlife area in 2015 along with the launch of limited spring wild turkey hunts there. NWTF helped secure grant funding to start the hunt program and initiate the research effort. The funds came from the sale of upland game bird hunting validations and stamps required of upland game bird hunters.

“We thought it would be great to start getting an abundance estimate for the turkeys that we do have out here to make sure that we weren’t harming the population through the hunt program and also to see how much hunter opportunity we could potentially utilize,” said Kevin Vella, NWTF’s district biologist for California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.

The spring wild turkey hunt program has been so successful and popular over its short history funding for the program and its research component will continue under CDFW’s general budget moving forward.

“I think Howard Slough especially offers some of the best turkey hunting I’ve seen anywhere,” said Upper Butte Basin Wildlife Area Manager Tim Hermansen. “Certainly, youth hunters have an excellent opportunity out here.”

Spring turkey hunts at both the Howard Slough and Little Dry Creek units are limited to lottery drawings through CDFW’s website in order to ensure an uncrowded, high-quality hunting experience. The hunter quota and the turkey harvest both have grown over the years along with the local turkey population. Hunter success ranged from 30 to 60 percent during the 2019 spring season but reached 100 percent for the youth hunt at Howard Slough in 2018.

Back to those double-banded birds.

Although 101 turkeys were banded at the wildlife area between 2015 and 2019, only three banded turkeys have been reported by hunters. That leads biologists to believe most of the turkeys have been prying off the traditional, “butt-end” bird bands, which have two edges that butt evenly together when clamped on.

The NWTF has since supplied Upper Butte Basin with rivet bands that are made of a harder metal and riveted closed when attached. The turkeys banded in 2019 and 2020 now receive a butt-end bird band on one leg and a rivet band on the other. Any of those harvested birds wearing a single rivet band will confirm suspicions that the birds have been prying off the butt-end bands.

“That’s the downside of doing any kind of novel research,” explained Laura Cockrell, a CDFW environmental scientist based at the Upper Butte Basin. “You only have your own mistakes to learn from.”

CDFW Photos. Top Photo: Upper Butte Basin Wildlife Area Manager Tim Hermansen releases a wild turkey after banding as Fish and Wildlife Technician Derek Schiewek and Seasonal Aid John Davis look on.

Media Contact:
Peter Tira, CDFW Communications, (916) 322-8908

Categories: General