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Pop-Up Habitats: Bird Migration Meets Modernity


Apps, crowdsourced funding, and reverse auctions find a role to play in conservation efforts.

For migrating birds, the dwindling amount of wetlands on the West coast has caused a major, even species-threatening problem. During migration, birds rely on the wetlands as rest stops along their routes which extend from Canada to South America. Wetlands areas are also an integral source for water and shelter.   

A new program called BirdReturn aims to increase the remaining 5-10 percent of wetlands available for migrating birds, a situation made worse by recent droughts. Apps such as BirdLog enable users to send bird sightings into a database which then allows researchers to predict migration patterns. Using that information, deemed "precision conservation," The Nature Conservancy in conjunction with the California Rice Commission has organized reverse auctions where the lowest bidder is paid to flood their fields, creating pop-up habitats. Douglas Thomas, a rice farmer outside of Sacramento was one of the farmers chosen in the reverse auction. Of the project, he says “It’ll push back our planting cycle. We can’t get into our fields earlier. So we’re putting harder, longer hours on our tractor and our crew. We’re taking a greater risk doing this.” However Thomas adds, “Northern pintail is my favorite bird. It’s such a graceful, amazing creature. And that we’re part of that annual cycle, that’s a neat, special thing.”

So far, the program is seeing success on many fronts. The cost of “renting” the habitat as compared to creating permanent wetlands is 0.5-1.5 percent according to Eric Hallstein, The Nature Conservancy’s Chief Economist. Additionally, in the first round of reverse auctions, approximately 10,000 acres of land were turned into temporary wetlands which saw bird densities 30 times higher as compared to average fields.  

Now efforts are focusing on how to expand the program. The Nature Conservancy hopes to raise enough money to create a million acres of land to be used as pop-up habitats. Organizations are also looking at how to apply this economic and conservation model to other habitats such as fisheries and streams.

Image by David Jenkins, licensed under Creative Commons.