Birds The Geese That Came in From the Wild

Canada geese used to be wild and far away; now they’re tame and underfoot. Why don’t they leave when they should?

by Jack Hope

It’s late june in rockland county, and the canada geese are molting. I’ve come to this bustling and heavily paved area northwest of New York City for the annual goose roundup, conducted by the state Department of Environmental Conservation. At each of the sites we visit–a manicured corporate lawn, the shores of a local reservoir, the grassy slopes of the Clarkstown landfill–our roundups proceed in the same efficient manner. 

A half dozen of us fan out behind the 30- to 60-goose flocks and herd them like sheep between two wings of temporary fencing toward a waist-high, 10- by 10-foot pen. By the time they enter the wings of our fence, the birds know they are being corralled; they exchange anxious talk and make brief dashes to the side. But without their primary feathers they are unable to fly, and only the rare, fast-waddling bird escapes our herdsmen’s drive.

Inside the pen with the surging geese, two workers grasp each eight-pound bird at the base of the wings and pass it over the fence to technicians, who record the number on the aluminum band around its leg and affix a band to each of this year’s goslings. For better or for worse, this small metal band–and, in some cases, a white plastic neck collar–stays with the goose for its roughly 12-year lifetime, identifying its origins and providing wildlife managers with information on the bird’s travels.

For the most part, however, these birds don’t travel. In fact, some people call them lawn carp, or couch-potato geese. Every one of these birds was born here and will remain here lifelong, thriving amid humanity, devouring cultivated grass and stale bread, begetting progeny and grandprogeny and great-grandprogeny, seldom flying more than two or three miles from its birthplace, and never facing the rigors of migration. Scott Smith, the biologist in charge of the roundup, says the odds are
greater that one of them will venture into a checkout line at Filene’s than into the air for a 1,400-mile flight to the nesting grounds on Quebec’s Ungava Peninsula.

For a few days following the roundup, he says, the geese will be human-shy. But after a week they’ll again be aggressively foraging–and defecating, always defecating–on the county’s lawns, in cemeteries and parks, on athletic fields and golf courses, coating the landscape with their tan-white breast feathers and their wet, three-inch-long droppings. 

"I loved it when the geese first came to us," says a Clarkstown woman whose spacious lawn is the scene of one of our roundups. "They’re beautiful. And for a wild animal–at least, I guess they’re a wild animal–they’re so easy to see. But now I’ve seen too much of them. I’ve had my fill of goose poop! There’s no place you can walk around here. And they never leave!  They don’t even fly south anymore."

In the late 1960s, when north Americans first began to notice small, scattered clusters of Canada geese that flew strangely low to the ground, nested on local lakes, and sometimes came close enough to be hand-fed a Dunkin’ Donut, we were both bewildered and delighted. Whether we lived in Pennsylvania or Iowa or Colorado, the Canada goose most of us knew was an aloof and far-flying migrant, a longtime symbol of wildness and wanderlust. Few people had seen the birds any closer than 1,000 feet overhead, flying in elegant V formations to and from their remote nesting grounds, which stretch cross-continent, from Newfoundland to the Aleutian Islands.

These new and up-close geese, most people assumed, were members of that annual stream of wild migrants that for reasons unknown had suddenly changed their age-old behavior.

"The question I’m most often asked by the public," says Jay Hestbeck, a senior wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, "is, ‘Why has the Canada goose stopped migrating?’ "

The short answer is, it hasn’t. In the continent’s four migratory flyways, the several wild subspecies of Branta canadensis (some say there are 8, some say 11 or more) regularly fly north and south more or less as they have since the last ice age.

What we observed with wonder in the 1960s was the beginning of the now well-known phenomenon of resident Canada geese. Today an estimated 4 to 5 million members of the species live cheek by jowl with civilization, year-round, in every state except Hawaii and in every Canadian province. And most of us see them not as wonders of nature but as pests, polluters of land and water and an insult to the genes of wild goosedom.

These suddenly populous residents have evolved over the past century or so as a result of a series of humanly engineered situations, including the widespread market hunting of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Hunters in each flyway owned "decoy flocks" of wounded or captured migrant Canada geese, which they kept in captivity to lure others out of the sky and into shotgun range. When the decoy birds reproduced, their offsprings’ wing feathers were clipped or one wing tip was amputated, and they, too, were kept captive.

When hunting with live decoys was outlawed in 1935, some former market hunters kept and cared for their flocks. Others released them in the nearest bay or marsh or gave them away. In the Atlantic Flyway alone, an estimated 20,000 birds were freed. Towns and parks and individuals everywhere gladly adopted them, feeding and protecting them for the novelty of having Canada geese nearby.

Even though their wings were no longer being clipped, the former decoy flocks did not resume their ancient migrations. Their migratory instincts were intact, but goslings learn the details of behavior from their parents and other adult geese. In the earthbound decoy flocks, after three or four or five generations in captivity, there were no birds remaining that had ever participated in, say, the spring nesting migration from the lower Mississippi Valley to northern Manitoba.

Also, during their captivity, decoy geese had become conditioned to residing year-round in a single location and relying upon their human keepers for food. After release, there was little biological incentive for the flocks to change their behavior. In northern states, when lake ice froze beneath them and snow covered the ground, flocks were forced to depart temporarily. But they typically flew only far enough–50 miles, 150 miles–to find the nearest open water and manmade food supply. The former decoy flocks thrived and slowly spread.

Meanwhile, Americans had been moving westward across the Midwest and the Great Plains. In both the United States and Canada, they often killed and ate geese, robbed their nests of eggs, and captured goslings to raise for food. This pressure, in addition to that of market hunting, severely depleted the numbers of the large, short-migrating Canada geese that inhabited that part of the world–Branta canadensis maxima, which averaged roughly 10 to 16 pounds. By the 1920s most wildlife biologists were convinced that the subspecies had been completely wiped out.

That wasn’t the case. Hundreds of former nest-robbers and subsistence hunters, along with onetime market hunters, owned small, untallied flocks of the birds. At least one wild flock remained as well, nesting in southeastern Manitoba and wintering in Rochester, Minnesota. But it was not until 1962 that an Illinois biologist, Harold Hanson, systematically weighed birds from this flock to prove that there were indeed survivors of the once bountiful "giant Canada geese."

Hanson’s finding created a hoopla within the wildlife-management community. There was an immediate rush not only to restore the giant Canada goose to its original habitat but to import and propagate the big birds for sport hunting in places where they had never before resided. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, along with most state wildlife agencies in the nation, bought
thousands of them, primarily from private flocks, and began captive-breeding programs. States that did not initiate their own programs later imported the large birds from nearby states that had an excess of them.

Hanson had described these large, low-flying Canada geese as innately placid and highly adaptable to human rearing. The breeding programs made them more so. Flocks of breeding pairs, wing tips amputated, were kept in fenced enclosures within state and federal refuges. Plots of alfalfa and oats were planted for them, and they were hand-fed lettuce, oyster grit, corn, and commercial laying mash. Wildlife workers built them winter shelters, concrete brood pens, wooden nest platforms, and even
nest enclosures made of cut-apart 55-gallon oil drums and discarded auto tires.

Over the next 25 years the breeding programs succeeded wildly. Government wildlife agencies relocated thousands of young geese each year into marshes, ponds, and lakes within their jurisdictions. The birds’ wings were no longer clipped. But, like the decoy flocks, these geese had already acquired the essentially nonmigratory behavior of their parents. They had also learned to live and nest in densely populated colonies and to depend upon human-supplied food.

This behavior dovetailed especially well with the evolving geopolitical landscape of the American suburbs. In a vast,
post—World War II transformation, millions of acres of brush lot, forest, and even desert were converted into the decorative ponds and cultivated grass of golf courses, corporate headquarters, school campuses, and residential lawns. The sport hunting that had traditionally culled goose populations was prohibited there.

"I don’t think anybody ever saw the resident-goose problem coming," says Bob Trost, a senior Fish and Wildlife Service biologist in Portland, Oregon. 

In the 1980s wildlife managers reckoned that hard-to-count resident geese probably totaled 15 to 20 percent of the number of migrants. But by the early ’90s, after census methods improved, they were startled to learn that they had underestimated resident populations by two- or threefold. Today, nationwide, there are roughly two-thirds as many resident geese as migrants.  In the Atlantic Flyway, the 1.2 million residents actually outnumber migrants by 50 percent. 

In some locations resident geese compete with migratory geese and ducks for a limited supply of food and space. They create widespread problems of land and water contamination through their defecation and feather shedding, and they cause millions of dollars’ worth of
damage to young or grassy farm crops, from corn to clover to oats and lettuce. 

"A decade ago, when people first came to us with complaints about resident Canada geese, they didn’t want to hurt the birds," says Laura Henze, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s director for animal-damage control in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. "They only wanted to use the methods for scaring them away. The problem is, none of those methods work long-term. So today, after 10 years of seeing the geese destroy their property, those same people are back, and they want
permits to shoot them!"

In the mid-1990s, with public distaste for resident geese at an all-time high, the Fish and Wildlife Service initiated regional programs that involved addling the birds’ eggs and rounding up adults for slaughter. (The meat is donated to homeless shelters.)  After much soul-searching, managers at the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Maryland have concluded that some 3,000 of its more than 5,000 resident geese must be done away with, by hunting or by euthanasia. And in August 1999 the 17 states along the Atlantic Flyway approved a goose-management plan that calls for the use of these methods to reduce the resident population by 550,000 birds–almost half.

"Resident geese are here to stay," says Bryan Swift, waterfowl specialist with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, "and we might as well learn how to live with them." It may well be–as some state and federal wildlife managers still argue–that every North American now has the opportunity to see a Canada goose up close and personal.  But it is also true that the Canada goose in our vision is no longer the wild, free, and near-mythical creature it was in the 1960s. It is boringly familiar, shamelessly dependent, and, like its great, wet globs of manure, always underfoot. 

Jack Hope’s last article for Audubon was "Breaking Out of the Box," about wood-duck nesting boxes, in May-June 1999.

© 2000  NASI

Sound off! Send a letter to the editor 
about this piece.