How Migrating Snow Geese Helped Stretch My Perspective

The seasonal movements of birds have captivated humans for millennia. Now we know enough about their flights to make surprising connections.
A huge flock of large birds flies across a blue, yellow, and pink sky, taking up the whole frame. Blurry outlines of trees are in the background.
Snow Geese lift off at sunrise in the vicinity of the Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area, a stop on their spring migration. Photo: Joanna Lentini

From the Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area parking lot, I hear a rumble. The noise grows as I walk a half mile to the lake, where I spot a crowd of a couple hundred people. But the crowd is quiet. All eyes are trained on a raucous, stadium-size gathering of geese honking into a cold February morning.

This rural Pennsylvania refuge is an early stopover for Snow Geese, Tundra Swans, and other waterfowl that leave wintering grounds on the Chesapeake Bay and fly thousands of miles to nest in the Arctic each spring. On a single day at peak migration, 200,000 Snow Geese have been counted at Middle Creek. The site’s visitor and biological manager Lauren Ferreri tells me she can’t think of another spot on the Atlantic Flyway hosting such concentrated avian numbers. People flock from near and far for the show, no binoculars required.

Such awe for migratory birds has occurred throughout history, since long before people had tools to follow these astounding journeys. Eagles bore messages of gods, while robins signified good fortune. And like birds, human survival was closely tied to seasonal cycles. The waterfowl that arrive in spring, for example, are important to the traditional diets and hunting cultures of many northern Indigenous communities.

Many decades of advances in migratory science offer me a point of connection that deepens my amazement of bird migration.

These days Snow Geese have exploded in population, feasting on U.S. farm fields in winter and benefitting from reduced hunting pressure throughout their range. As a result, they are overgrazing Arctic breeding habitats needed by other wildlife. I call Ronnie Ningeongan, a community liaison officer for the Kivalliq Inuit Association in Nunavut, Canada. He tells me about how his community in Coral Harbour has received funds that help increase their seasonal Snow Goose harvest. This allows them to share the bounty to improve nutrition for families who struggle to buy costly food from stores or who live further inland, while helping manage goose numbers.

From my desk in New York, it’s hard for me to imagine what life is like in Ningeongan’s remote region. But many decades of advances in migratory science offer me a point of connection that deepens my amazement of bird migration: I know both my lifestyle and Ningeongan’s shape the fate of this species.

At Middle Creek, the sun overtakes the horizon and a few geese lift off. Suddenly, all follow. Like a stadium wave, a roar builds as birds circle in a funnel until it’s all I can hear. It is overwhelming and primal. As the tornado calms, many geese return to the lake. Others visit nearby fields to eat. Some decide to leave. They group into V-shapes, flying fast. Soon they recede into distant hills, continuing their journey. 

This story originally ran in the Spring 2022 issue as “A Flurry of Insight.” To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.