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birds descend on a wildlife refuge at the end of the Flint River. Many of those birds will return to
the same site the following spring, heading north as winter releases its icy grip on the region.
Exhausted from trips that can span thousands of miles, they find respite at the Shiawassee
National Wildlife Refuge.
The refuge is located at the confluence of the Flint and three other rivers, about 40 miles
northwest of downtown Flint. These rivers are the lifeblood of the refuge which, in turn, gives
rise to the Saginaw River. The Saginaw River links the Flint River to Lake Huron.
The vast expanse of water, wetlands and woods at the refuge – which is sandwiched between
miles of farmland and a small city – spans an area roughly the size of 10,000 football fields.
Shiawassee is considered an urban refuge, due to its proximity to the neighboring city of
Saginaw. It is also a prime example of how a managed landscape can support wildlife, provide
flood control and cleanse a massive amount of river water destined for the Great Lakes. But first
and foremost, it is a haven for wildlife.
The refuge has been designated a United States Important Bird Area, due to its global
significance for migratory waterfowl. More than 280 species of birds have been observed there –
ducks and geese, bald eagles and hawks, Great Egrets and Sandhill cranes.
Like much of Michigan, the flat landscape of the refuge is a relic of massive glaciers that carved
the Great Lakes thousands of years ago.
In the early 1900s, farmers and the federal government tried to drain the area, then known as the
Shiawassee Flats. They wanted to grow crops on the land. But, frustrated by repeated flooding,
they eventually gave up.
Today, biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rely on large pumps and a series of
levees to manage water levels in a manner that benefits wildlife.
The refuge has become a model for large-scale wetland restoration. Some local officials believe
it could play a role in revitalizing the neighboring city of Saginaw.
Shiawassee is one of the few wildlife refuges that allows motorists to drive through protected
federal land. A six-mile long seasonal road takes visitors into the heart of the property, where
huge flocks of birds often flood the sky. The narrow gravel road gives more people a chance to
experience the refuge – without jeopardizing the birds.
To learn more, visit: fws.gov/refuge/Shiawassee
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