Research: Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge

The best ponds are the kind with water in them.

That may seem like a self-evident statement. But after visiting countless rivers, ponds, marshes, and even entire wildlife refuges that were bone dry, water seems a thing of myth and beauty. And there was plenty of it here.

American White Pelicans preen on an island in the refuge’s main pond.

The entire Sacramento wildlife refuge complex (Sacramento, Delevan, Colusa, and others) is man-made and managed. Decades ago, waterways such as the Sacramento River spilled out of their banks to create some 4 million acres of ponds and ephemeral wetlands throughout the Central Valley. River diking and diversion has since reduced that area by over 90%. So to help keep the valley wetlands from disappearing altogether, the refuges were built: dug out from marginal land, then carefully flooded and dried in a scientifically-informed schedule to mirror the natural seasons of the valley and optimize food and habitat availability for wildlife.

The whole affair may seem artificial, and technically it is. But it hardly looks it.


The vast meadows and wetlands are stocked with a diversity of plants and brimming with wildlife. This entire summer we’ve been lucky to see an occasional Mallard duck. Here, we spotted 12 species of waterfowl and at least 10 other waterbird species. I doubt we’ll see such diversity anywhere else.

First Bald Eagle of the summer. Not a waterbird, but still very cool.

On top of that, the blackbirds were prolific. I couldn’t begin to count the many thousands of birds that flew by in an unending stream at dawn each morning.

Blackbirds taking flight.

Mammals were impressively diverse as well, ranging from the cool.

Jackrabbit along the road.

To the adorable.

A pile of river otters playing in the mud.

To the perilous.

Striped skunk, getting a little too close for comfort.

In our travels we’ve visited many places where birds and humans seem able to share their space. Our gardens and river parkways make excellent homes for sparrows and finches and the vast assemblage of birds that make their homes in treetops or flowering bushes.

But wetlands are more difficult to approximate in a backyard, or even a city park. They require vast open spaces that are in short supply in California. But the benefit of setting these places aside is clear: billions of waterfowl use these refuges each year, more than the populations of San Francisco and Los Angeles combined.

Hopefully, we’ll find room for more in the future. Though whether there will be water to fill them is another concern altogether.


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