History of Oregon by Oregon Historical Society
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Subtopic : Wonders of Nature: Flyway

Themes: People and the Environment

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Avocet on Nest, Klamath Lake, 1905
Finley A-1589

“They rise from the water or fall from the air with balletic grace,” wrote Barry Lopez of the white geese that visit Tule Lake each November in “one of the most imposing—and dependable—wildlife spectacles in the world.” Snow geese are only one of many kinds of wildfowl that crease the skies of the Klamath Basin. About a thousand wintering bald eagles arrive every year from Alaska and Montana, congregating in greater numbers here than anywhere else. There are ducks of many varieties: mallards, northern shovelers, redhead, and canvasback. Kestrels, blackbirds, marsh hawks, barn owls, tundra swans, Savannah sparrows, and tree swallows, all wing their way to these lakes and marshlands in great numbers. And there are many more to catch the eye: 260 bird species in all. In 1956 a United States Fish and Wildlife report said that in the Klamath Basin one found “the greatest concentration of waterfowl in North America and probably the world.” That year an estimated 7 million birds appeared within and above the region’s six National Wildlife Refuges.

In the decades since, those numbers have dropped closer to 1 million. Even though this region remains, as Barry Lopez said, “one of the richest habitats for migratory wildfowl in North America,” in times of water scarcity, fish and farms have priority in their claims for water over visiting birds. Of the 360,000 acres of wetlands once found in the Klamath Basin, 142,000 remain, and three quarters of these acres, even within the wildlife refuges, are farmed.

Some of the crops are cereal grains that wildfowl consume. But agricultural practices on and near the refuges do not protect them from pesticide pollution. Rachel Carson noted that in 1960 “the refuge staff picked up hundreds of dead and dying birds at Tule Lake and Lower Klamath.” She feared that the poisoning of refuge waters could lead to a “silent spring” at this crucial place for wildfowl in the Western Hemisphere, where mountains have formed “the narrow neck of a funnel, into which all the migratory paths composing what is known as the Pacific Flyway converge.”

© Stephen Most, 2003

Themes: People and the Environment

Regions: Southwestern Oregon

Date: Pre-contact-Present

Author: Stephen Most

Once home to the greatest concentration of mirating waterfowl in North American, the Klamath Basin has lost over half of its wetlands to the needs of local farming.

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