Written by Merle Sheppard
Originally Published in The Rice Paper Newsletter, Fall 2009
Impoundments for rice production along the Carolina and Georgia coastline, drastically changed the local landscape and brought about a diverse ecosystem that attracted myriad aquatic organisms, including frogs, worms, snakes, and crustaceans, and provided food and habitat for a large number of birds.
The rice field undergoes succession and shifts in plant species composition over time (Kelly 2005). Interestingly, although several dozen species of birds inhabit the rice ecosystem, only two actually damage the crop. Dr. David Shields reported on the “rice bird,” which is actually a bobolink, the most serious of rice pests during the major rice production period in the Charleston area (Shields 2008). Early planters timed the planting of their crops so as to minimize the impact of these migratory rice feeders.
The other bird, the Canada goose (figure 2), is a more recent pest of rice. We cultivate Carolina Gold and soon to be released ‘Charleston Gold’ at Clemson University’s Coastal Research and Education Center on Savannah Highway in Charleston, SC. The geese come in flocks of a dozen or more and attack the crop shortly after the rice seed germinate, devouring the young seedlings. The geese have adapted to the local environments, because of holding ponds and lakes in subdivisions (and because of feeding by residents) and stay in the area all year round, not following their usual behavior of migrating south during winter. In 2008, Canada geese destroyed about a 20 square meter area in a field of Carolina Gold rice on the Clemson University Experimental farm.
Most other bird species that are attracted to rice fields, both old and new, are not pests but are part of the essential fabric of this ecosystem. They also provide endless opportunities for birdwatchers and naturalists to observe them. A good example of an old rice field is typified by the abandoned rice fields at the Caw Caw Interpretive Center on Savannah Highway near Ravenel, SC. Caw Caw is a 654 acre property, formerly a rice plantation that flourished in the 18th and 19th centuries. The earthen dikes and water control devices are still in place and the impoundments and adjacent areas provide habitat to at least 251 bird species. Some birds are seasonal, others are not so common but the list is an example of the amazing diversity and richness of species that occur in abandoned rice fields.
The unique element of the rice field (old or new) is water. This not only provides an ideal habitat for colonizing plants but also attracts a large number of aquatic animal species including insects. The abandoned rice plantations also produce communities of plants along the edges of impoundments that provide an ideal habitat for many bird species such as the common yellow-throat, king rail, least bittern, and many others. This article will provide a small photographic glimpse at a few of the more commonly encountered bird species in rice fields in current production and in abandoned rice fields. There are dozens of other species, not included here, that have adapted to the edge habitat that adjoins rice impoundments. As we admire the rich species diversity of the avifauna, we are still enjoying the fruits of the labor of early rice planters and people who supported the enterprise of rice production.
Birds found in rice paddies
Great Blue Heron
Little Blue Heron
Black-Crowned Night Heron
Yellow-Crowned Night Heron
Snowy Egret Cattle Egret
Greater Yellowlegs Solitary Sandpiper
Wood Duck Mottled DuckHooded Merganser Bufflehead
Blue-winged Teal Pied-billed Grebe
Ring-necked Duck Northern Pintail
Birds that feed on rice