1. Recent legislation designed to reduce air pollution has restricted Californian rice-farmers from burning rice stubble after harvest. Intentional flooding of fields during winter to speed straw decomposition is becoming increasingly common as growers seek alternatives to burning residual straw. The potential for flooded fields to act as a surrogate for destroyed wetland habitat may be an additional benefit in a region that hosts a large proportion of North America’s wintering waterbirds. We investigated the degree to which waterbirds use flooded fields and whether the method of flooding affects their use. Specifically, we tested whether waterbird use (a) was greater in intentionally flooded fields than in unflooded fields, (b) differed among flooded fields receiving different straw manipulations and (c) varied with water depth.
2. Intentionally flooded rice fields received significantly greater use by 24 of 31 species studied. Only great blue herons Ardea herodias and sandhill cranes Grus canadensis were significantly more common in unflooded fields. Geese densities did not differ between flooded and unflooded fields.
3. We found no differences in the densities of most species in flooded fields that received different straw manipulations to improve decomposition rates. Exceptions included several small shorebirds which occurred at highest densities in fields where straw was incorporated into the soil.
4. Species differed in their use of different water depths. For 14 species we tested whether preferred depths, suggested in the literature, received disproportionately higher use. Most of these species were more likely to be encountered within the suggested depth ranges. Depth, however, was a poor predictor of bird density. Depths of 15–20 cm resulted in frequent use by the greatest number of species.
5. We conclude that flooding rice fields increased suitable habitat for most, but not all, species studied. Different straw manipulation methods had little effect on most species. Water depth, however, was important in determining species occurrence. During the first half of the winter, water depths were greater than the median depths used by most species.