24 October 2017

How the market has given migrating birds a habitat


When people talk about the usefulness of markets, the benefit to migrating birds is usually not high on the list.

And yet in California crowd sourced data, a mobile phone app and rice farmers in need of cash are combining to create a market solution to an ornithological puzzle.

The Golden State is the key stopping off point in the Pacific Flyway, the vast migratory corridor which runs from Alaska to Patagonia in South America. Birds pause here to rest and feed in the state’s forests and wetlands. You could say California is the avian equivalent of the M1’s Watford Gap Services.

The problem is that through urbanisation, expanding agriculture and climate change the precious habitats the travelling waterfowl rely on are disappearing. This isn’t just a problem for nature lovers. From pest control to pollination, the birds provide a host of valuable ecosystem services. They also bring in millions of dollars in tourism from bird watchers and hunters.

The Nature Conservancy, a conservation charity, has come up with a novel solution to this problem in the form of pop-up wetlands called “BirdReturns”.  They first considered trying to buy the required land but they quickly realised there was a cheaper, more efficient option. They only needed the land for parts of the year when the birds were passing through. So why fork out for a mortgage when the ornithological equivalent of Airbnb will do? So instead of buying the land, they used a reverse auction and invited local rice farmers to submit bids on how much they would take to flood their fields for four, six or eight-week blocks out of rice-growing season.

To keep costs low, the Nature Conservancy needed to know exactly where and when they required the wetlands to be up and running. Otherwise they risked paying farmers for soggy fields with no birds in them. To find out which geographic areas to target and when, they turned to the birdwatchers of California and a mobile app called eBird. Behind a birdwatcher’s binoculars is usually someone who loves to make lists. Part of the pleasure of birdwatching, apart from the fresh air, beautiful surroundings and a chance to appreciate nature, is the opportunity to jot down all the birds you’ve spotted.

Rather than having this valuable data collecting dust in paper notebooks, the eBird app builds a record everything a birdwatcher has seen .  This exercise in citizen science then sends all this sighting data to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in upstate New York. The result is a detailed picture of when a migration is about to begin and where it is heading.  By crunching the numbers and considering the available habitats under the birds’ flightpath, The Nature Conservancy is able to pay for the right field to be flooded.

With the market setting the price,they can choose the most suitable land at the best prices. During times of severe drought the charity will pay more. When there is plenty of rainfall they pay less. The farmers are happy to give the birds a helping hand while also receiving an income during the off season which secures the Californian rice industry. Since the scheme was piloted in 2014 more than 40,000 acres of habitat has been created.

On current values, buying the required land would have cost about $150 million, converting it to suitable wetland habitat a further $25 million and maintaining it would be around $100,000 a year.  But by allowing market forces to create pop up wetlands through private farms, the whole project comes in at less than $1.4 million a year.

The Nature Conservancy insist the temporary wetlands alone will not be the long-term solution if the habitat loss continues, but it’s an example of how technology, crowd-sourced data and market incentives can address some unusual problems.

Joe Ware is a journalist and writer at Christian Aid