Annual Yellow Rails and Rice Festival Attracts Birders from Far and Wide

Small bird with yellow, brown, and white feathers held in a person
Yellow rail at rest (LSU photo)
Nov 07, 2019
THORNWELL, LA -- This past weekend marked the eleventh year that ornithologists and avid birdwatchers have gathered in southwest Louisiana for a chance to take in the beauty and abundance of waterfowl and wildlife here – particularly the yellow rail, a rare marshbird that migrates to the Gulf Coast each winter, stopping over in Louisiana’s rice fields.

The Yellow Rails and Rice Festival grew out of an idea that began with the curiosity of birdwatchers passing through the Thornwell area in search of yellow rails.  Rice farmers Shirley and Kevin Berken, along with ornithologists Donna Dittmann and Steve Cardiff with Louisiana State University, realized the potential this elusive little bird had in bringing folks to the area to showcase the habitat created by the conservation efforts of the rice industry.

Beyond birdwatching in the rice fields, the festival also includes tours of Falcon Rice Mill in Crowley, as well as trips south to the Louisiana coast and north to the Piney Woods region for a chance to view all the state has to offer as a birding paradise.  

As this year’s festival got underway, rainy weather slowed activity on the first day, but the weekend improved with clear, sunny skies and perfect conditions for enjoying birds in their natural habitats.  There were a number of return human visitors, along with folks from as far away as Alaska, and from around the globe, including the Netherlands.  

The festival kicks off with a ‘Rice Farming 101” presentation by Kevin Berken.  “The opportunity to share the importance of how the rice industry benefits not only the habitat it provides for waterfowl and wildlife, but the economic impact the rice industry and agricultural in general provides to our community and across the country is eye opening to everyone who attends,” said Kevin.  “Each year, we get to share our story firsthand with hundreds of people who then go back to their communities and share what they’ve seen and learned with others.  The ability to not just tell, but to show how and why we do the things we do goes a long way in resolving a lot of misinformation they may have had about agriculture and farming practices.”

A highlight for festival attendees is riding a combine and spotting rails as they are flushed from the stubble, with the best views from the platform near the cab.  This year there were two harvesters operating, Kevin Berken in one and fellow rice farmer Paul Johnson at the helm of the other.  

With another successful outing in the books, many birders are already looking forward to next year’s festival and returning to southwest Louisiana to share their experience and promote the Louisiana and U.S. rice industries.