Winged Warning: Migrating Birds Hit Hard by California’s Record Drought


Snow geese fly over the Sacramento River National Wildlife Refuge in October. Photo by Nina Riggio for CalMatters

It says something about the complexity of California’s water crisis that there are so many actors in the state’s water wars, all clamoring for more. Nature, alone, is silent in this fight, relying on others to speak on behalf of the welfare of wildlife and waterways.

Across the state, biologists, farmers and hunters are lending nature a helping hand. It’s sometimes an extreme intervention: trucking young salmon when drought shrinks rivers. 

But this year these lifelines aren’t enough. Migratory birds — protected by state and national laws and an international treaty — are suffering mightily during this drought, succumbing more quickly than they did during the last major dry spell, which lasted five years and ended in early 2017.

California is the most critical link in the 4,000-mile-long Pacific Flyway, a route along the West Coast where millions of birds shuttle between their summer and winter homes. It’s an arduous journey, hopscotching from wetlands and waterways, allowing birds to rest and refuel, shoring up strength for their trip.

Wildlife experts say this year’s severe drought has uncoupled that connectivity. Normal routes — long imprinted in migrating birds’ navigation systems — have gone haywire.



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