Imagined Boundaries: Waterfowl Migration and Human Intervention in the Pacific Flyway
Updated: Aug 2
There’s this unassuming but charming park near (my apartment in Tokyo) the Sophia University dormitory in the Kami-Soshigaya neighborhood of Setagaya. When I feel like I need a break from the frenetic pace of the "real" world, I’d walk to the park, sit on a bench beneath one of the gently swaying trees and listen to the soft gurgle of the stream nearby. It was, I had thought, a way for me to experience “nature” amid the often overwhelming urban sprawl that is the Japanese capital.
I can't speak for other people, but I've always imagined parks and other "green" places as wholly distinct from the concrete jungle city dwellers are used to. This notion—the mental categorizing of spaces as either natural or human-made—has been so ingrained in my thinking that it had never occurred to me to challenge it. Reading Robert Wilson’s book, Seeking Refuge: Birds and Landscapes of the Pacific Flyway, was nothing short of an eye-opening, mind-widening experience and a welcome opportunity to learn more about humanity’s place as part of the wider natural world.
At the risk of simplifying its subject matter, the book is primarily about migratory birds and the spaces along the North American Pacific coast which are vital to their survival. These waterfowl (various species of ducks and geese) have been making the multi-thousand-mile migratory journey for millennia. From the arctic regions of northwestern Alaska, they fly down the coastline, via the panhandle and the western expanses of Canada’s Yukon territory, past British Columbia and Washington state, before finally making southern Oregon and California their home for the winter. This international border-spanning route has been dubbed—by ornithologists and environmental scientists—the Pacific Flyway, one of four major bird migration thoroughfares in North America.
Wilson, however, is concerned with more than just the long-lived reality of the flyway. As with virtually all contemporary environmental concerns, human activity is a significant factor in the changing make-up of the Pacific Flyway. For waterfowl, it is not an exaggeration to say that humanity’s presence is an existential threat.
For waterfowl, it is not an exaggeration to say that humanity’s presence is an existential threat.
To understand why humans pose such a risk, it is essential to first make sense of why waterfowl do what they do. That is, why exactly do these ducks and geese fly thousands of miles every year just to change their place of residence?
In this regard, Wilson’s definition of migration as a “coping mechanism” is helpful. Animals migrate because the environments which they call home ultimately cannot provide them with enough food. Flying—or, in the case of whales and seals, swimming—thousands of miles can be understood as a response to changes in the availability of local resources. If push comes to shove, Wilson contends that waterfowl can endure the harsh conditions of an arctic winter. What they cannot bear is an empty stomach. And so, as winter approaches and shrubs and other plant life die out, waterfowl make their journey south, looking for spaces with a viable food source. To use the technical term, the “wintering range” of migratory birds along the Pacific Flyway consists mostly of spaces in the Klamath Basin straddling the Oregon-California border and California’s Central and Imperial Valleys.
Capable of flight, waterfowl make their home in two distinct habitats, thousands of miles apart. So important are these wetlands to their survival that the destruction of even a few of these spaces at either end of the flyway can have deleterious effects on the entire population of migratory birds.
How do humans figure in this picture? Since the middle of the nineteenth century, the rate and manner of human intervention in the region has led to the most drastic change in the Pacific Flyway’s southern landscape. Indigenous peoples have, of course, been living in the area long before other human inhabitants. It was the predominantly white, European settlement of the North American West that, Wilson notes, was the chief cause of the radical terraforming of the waterfowl’s wintering range.
By the turn of the century, the anthropocentric transformation of the landscape had begun in earnest. Settlers sought to convert wetlands into economically productive agricultural land and rural and urban living spaces. In addition, numerous riverbanks, whole river ecosystems, and even old-growth forests were cleared or significantly altered to make way for an ever-growing human presence. The majority of Seeking Refuge, however, is an exposition of the complicated relationship between wetlands and the farmlands surrounding them.
The drive to transform “wild” lands into vast agricultural spaces was propelled not only by the desire to make a profit, but also by the belief that wetlands were unhygienic and unsanitary. By and large, settlers considered marshes—with their tall, unkempt blades of vegetation, unfamiliar smells, and overall lack of organization—to be “noxious” spaces, ripe for human intervention. Wilson summarizes the prevailing view as follows: For the settlers, “wetlands were valueless unless drained.” So began an ambitious and wide-ranging effort to divert water from the marshes such that they would dry up and could be turned into farms. As rivers were diked and water was rerouted for farmland irrigation, more and more wetlands disappeared.
Tampering with nature resulted in disastrous outcomes for the wider North American West. With the forcible alteration of water flow patterns, river life and biodiversity suffered. Key examples are the Fraser River in British Columbia and the Sacramento River in Northern California. Lakes, too, took a hit. Cut off from many of their inflowing rivers, lakes such as the Tulare contracted and became more saline, and others like Owens Lake disappeared altogether.
Human actions have been and continue to be instrumental in the shaping of waterfowl wellbeing—of these birds who have made their continent-spanning journey for thousands of years. It isn’t surprising, then, to state that with the disappearance of wetlands and their supporting bodies of water, migratory bird populations dropped. In California’s Central Valley, for example, environmental scientists estimate that fifty million migratory ducks and geese visited per year in the 1940s. That number has fallen to about four million in the late 2000s.
I don’t mean to paint a somber picture, and Wilson’s book isn’t so much an account of the negatives brought about by human intervention as it is an invitation to think deeply about the impact of our actions on the rest of the natural world. It is worth mentioning as well that there have been inroads in the preservation of waterfowl via the creation of wetland sanctuary areas in the valleys of California and Oregon. Indeed, the book’s title—Seeking Refuge—refers to the process by which humans have carved out “sanctuaries” for migrating birds amidst patches of terraformed farmland.
It is important to note that such an arrangement is far from ideal. In the United States, the refuges are managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), which has had a fraught relationship with various other human actors and organizations. During the 1940s, farmers had much to say regarding the creation of sanctuaries and their proximity to agricultural land. Birds are entirely oblivious to human-made borders. It has often happened that waterfowl visiting for the winter would decimate cash crops, thereby robbing farmers of their livelihood. Tasked with managing a “very mobile resource,” the FWS had to make sure that the birds would stick to where humans wanted them to be. One method involved taking to the skies and literally dropping grenades among flocks of geese, all to steer them into the right refuge.
Birds are entirely oblivious to human-made borders.
Later on, the environmental movement of the seventies gained enough political traction to pressure the federal government into rethinking river damming, diking, and water diversion practices. Environmentalists were rightly concerned about the biodiversity of nearby river ecosystems, as prioritizing water flows for farmland irrigation meant that other species would suffer. Salmon, for instance, were prevented from completing their breeding runs by the gauntlet of human structures in their way. At this point, though, waterfowl sanctuaries were wholly a part of the irrigated, artificial landscape. To deprive these wetlands of water would be tantamount to endangering migratory birds.
There are, of course, more issues besides, and Wilson does a wonderful job of inciting critical reflection for ways in which we can all move forward in our relationship with each other and with the wider natural world.
There are few things more indicative of the artificial quality of human-made designations than the migration patterns of waterfowl. Borders and boundaries between states and properties mean nothing to migratory birds, and rightfully so, as they do not claim and commodify nature the way human beings are wont to do. In the same vein, the distinction between what is human-made or human and what is natural is ultimately unhelpful. The human-nature binary ignores the reality that landscapes and waterscapes are decidedly shared spaces and we are, therefore, challenged to remember that our actions have far-reaching consequences.
Until we learn to think like birds—ridiculous as that may sound—we will continue to see the world as being divided by imagined boundaries.
Robert M. Wilson is Associate Professor of Geography and the Environment at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University. He received his Ph.D. from the University of British Columbia and is primarily interested in historical geography and environmental history.