Drive through Skagit Valley’s fields from December through February and you’ll likely see hundreds of pristine white birds waddling about the muddy fields. Continue watching and you’ll see a magnificent sight when the flock suddenly takes flight and your field of vision looks like a fuzzy, snowy television screen.
Martha Jordan, executive director of the Northwest Swan Conservation Association (NWSCA) explains the impressive display is thanks to a “flock mentality” and is a safeguard against impending danger. When snow geese take flight all at once, predators like eagles, foxes, and coyotes have trouble picking off just one individual. “Anyone left behind is likely to get eaten,” says Jordan. Of course, the geese — and to a lesser extent, trumpeter and tundra swans — aren’t the only animals to use this tactic. We locals just happen to be privy to the incredible sight when they do.
There’s more to the birds than their striking white feathers though, which is what Jordan and the NWSCA is striving to educate the public about. Jordan explained there’s a push and pull. The wintering waterfowl are beautiful and a critical component to our ecosystem, but human factors need to be considered. The snow geese population in Washington has skyrocketed in recent years, and their winter habitat is expanding, spreading their territory towards eastern Washington and through much of western Washington.
The birds that visit Skagit in winter actually breed in Russia and migrate through Canada in the spring and fall, creating an unusual situation where three nations are involved in their conservation and management.
You might wonder: If their populations are booming, what’s there to worry about? Well, to our region’s farmers, plenty. The birds eat the crops and compress the rich soil, causing damage and economic loss to farms. Some farmers alter their crops to discourage waterfowl, which in turn reduces the acreage available as habitat. Swans have also been known to fly into power lines, resulting in power outages and requiring manpower to correct the damage. A thriving population increases the potential of power line strikes, so the NWSCA works with electric companies to think up creative solutions.
The bigger picture is that birds, including snow geese and graceful- necked trumpeter and tundra swans, are dependent on agricultural lands. That creates a conundrum for farmers and fans alike, says Jordan. “How do we support our wonderful waterfowl and at the same time have a symbiotic relationship with farmers?” To further muddy things, other considerations, like hunting, are involved in that ecosystem.
“It’s a really complex issue,” Jordan says. “Finding those solutions to keep the system working so we can have these wonderful, beautiful birds in our lives is something I’m working on.”
If you’d like to learn more, Jordan is leading two classes this month at Christianson’s Nursery & Greenhouse in Mount Vernon: “Swans of the Skagit” on Saturday, December 2 from 1–2 p.m.; and “Snow Geese of the Skagit” December 9 at 1 p.m. She will discuss the birds, the issues surrounding them, and share some of the best local places to view them. Reservations are required.