If birds could talk, they'd tell one another to head to Jim Kuhn's El Centro, CA, farm.
That's because Kuhn, a wildlife photographer and enthusiast, works hard to enhance wildlife habitat -- while maintaining an efficient haying operation -- on his Imperial Valley farm.
He's modified machinery, revised his chemical application practices and irrigation schedules, and set aside land for public wildlife viewing.
"We have a responsibility to maintain and preserve the natural habitat of our land and the wildlife that utilizes it," says Kuhn, who raises several thousand acres of alfalfa, sudangrass, bermudagrass and oat hay.
Western alfalfa growers often come under fire from environmental groups because of the amount of water they use to grow crops. Publicizing the good things they do for wildlife can help offset the adverse, often erroneous, attitudes of urban dwellers, says Kuhn.
Statistics show the importance of alfalfa to wildlife. According to University of California- Davis research, of the 643 wild animals and birds that inhabit California, 25% use alfalfa. Ten percent of the species that use alfalfa use it extensively for breeding and reproduction; 24%, for cover; and 57%, for feeding.
The Imperial Valley alone is home to more than 400 bird species. It's hosting the annual Imperial Valley Salton Sea International Bird Festival this month. Kuhn, festival chairman, says the event draws bird watchers from more than 20 states.
He routinely sees hawks, fly catchers, pipits, sparrows, meadowlarks and many other bird species when he's in the field.
"It's unbelievable the number of birds that utilize alfalfa for nesting, as a source of food or as cover to avoid being preyed on," says Kuhn.
To protect wildlife from chemical drift, Kuhn quit using aerial pesticide applications.
"When the fields are wet, we drop the pressure on the tires and spray the fields without having to call the airplane. Our equipment gives a very direct spray; drift is almost zero. There's no question that helps."
With wildlife in mind, in fact, Kuhn tries to minimize pesticide use. For example, by adjusting his flood irrigation schedule, and with help from worm-eating birds, he has almost eliminated the need to spray for cutworms.
"Birds follow the irrigation water and get the worms as they're pushed up out of the soil. But they don't feed at night," he points out. "By watering one side of the field first during the day, the birds clean up the worms. The other half of that field is watered at night, when the birds don't feed. But the next time the field is watered, the other side is watered first.
"By switching the irrigation schedule back and forth, we're constantly pushing the worms out on opposite sides and giving birds the chance to feed from the entire field."
Kuhn and the Imperial Irrigation District have set aside 100 acres for the National Watchable Wildlife Program, which is supported by federal, state and non-profit agencies. The site, one of 200 Watchable Wildlife sites in California, is open to the public for year- round wildlife viewing.
He will soon be one of four California farmers to begin working with University of California researchers to modify forage harvesting equipment to make it more wildlife- friendly.
The team will put flush bars on swathers and monitor their effects. Flush bars are bars or chains mounted at least 6' in front of a swather, above the crop. They flush birds off their nests during harvest.
"We ultimately hope to convince equipment manufacturers to offer options that make equipment more wildlife-friendly," says Kuhn.
Here are more ideas for wildlife-friendly forage harvesting from the University of California-Davis:
* Install a sorghum guard, which has longer tines, on your forage harvester. This may reduce mortality by flushing birds sooner or helping them stay under the cutter.
* Raise the cutter 3" above ground. This should enable ducks and pheasants, which tend to nest in small depressions, to escape.
* Broadcast duck or pheasant alarm calls in front of the machine every five to six passes.
* Flush hens from nests before cutting by dragging a rope or chain between two people or small vehicles. Once located, eggs could be collected or the nest locations could be marked. Then leave a small patch of alfalfa around each nest.
* Leave several acres of nesting cover near a pond to attract birds away from alfalfa fields.
* Install artificial nesting and/or roosting structures for owls and hawks.