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Wet Fields Profitable For Farmers,Migrating Birds

10 Sep 2023

Farmers who have a hard-to-farm wet spot on their land may be able to turn it into a well-drained, profitable field by providing a temporary wet habitat for migrating birds. According to University of Illinois ornithologist Michael Ward, about 60 fields in East Central Illinois that qualify would receive incentives to install water control structures into existing tile drainage systems.  Drainage water management, as it’s commonly referred to, would give farmers greater control over the amount of water on their land and could be used to provide wet spots until April for migrating birds.

“There are no out-of-pocket costs for farmers and we will actually pay you to keep water in your field a few weeks longer,” Ward said. The program, being offered through the USDA and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, aims to kill two birds with one stone, so to speak. The newly installed drainage water management structure will allow farmers to retain moisture in their fields that can be used by crops during dry periods, help reduce nitrogen runoff, and keep fields wet a few weeks longer to give migrating birds the habitat they need to refuel for the rest of their trip.

“We know there are fields that don’t drain very well,” Ward said. “If you visit them during migration, you’ll see 5,000 shorebirds there eating at a single time. The problem is that farmers have so much economic incentive to try to eliminate water and farm the land as quickly as possible. They plow it, plant something, then it rains again and it’s no good. This program is trying to take the pressure off of farmers to drain these fields and plant them so quickly and instead provide incentives to leave them wet for a while longer.”

Landowners who would like to apply for this shorebirds conservation program should contact Mike Ward at

“In essence, we’re saying that we’ll pay you for what you would have anyway and to keep it wet until the end of April,” Ward said. “If it stays wet too long after that, you’re covered. However, we think you can provide valuable habitat for migrating shorebirds and waterfowl and still plant crops, especially soybeans.  So it can be a double-your-money, win-win situation.”

“Our research shows how current farming practices are not necessarily incompatible with providing wet field habitats for migrating shorebirds,” said Kirk Stodola, avian ecologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey.  He and other colleagues of Mike Ward have been collecting data on the migration of American golden-plovers through central Illinois for years.  “The exact dates of the plovers arrival varies slightly from year to year, but typically lasts 3 to 4 weeks. During this period, the birds utilize wet areas to build up fat reserves and grow new feathers.  However, right now most of the shorebird and waterfowl species do not have access to this type of habitat during their stopover in East Central Illinois,” Stodola said.

He added that based on the information they have collected, it’s possible for farmers to use drainage water management to provide needed wet areas in their fields, while still allowing them time to drain their fields for planting crops.   

“It’s amazing to think that just a couple of weeks before, they were in Brazil or Argentina and now they’re stopping here on their way to the Arctic Circle,” Ward said of the American golden-plover. “In earlier times, they may have only stopped for a couple of weeks. Today, there isn’t as much food available to them, so they need to stay longer. A lot of these birds are declining in population. We think the reason is that they can’t find the food they need during their long migration.”

What happens if we lose the golden-plover to extinction? Ward said that it’s hard to predict what effect it might have on the environment.

“I often use the analogy of an airplane with rivets in the wings,” Ward said. “If each rivet is a species, you might lose a couple of species here and there and we’ll still be fine. Eventually though, we’ll lose one species and it will be a tipping point in which the plane falls apart. If golden plovers went extinct we might not see any kind of ecological consequences or we might find that a certain insect takes over that we didn’t realize that they helped control. It’s impossible to know what large-scale implications there might be for humans. But why risk it? The current global estimate is at about 200,000 birds, which is a point at which we start to worry. Because they rely on agricultural settings, it could be that small changes in agriculture such as leaving some wet areas available to them could mean a lot to their survival,” he said


Farmers Hot Line is part of the Catalyst Communications Network publication family.