The Trouble With Geese

September 1, 1998 by Diana Sims

High-flying honkers are as Canadian as maple sugar in March and crimson leaves in October. Several species of these migratory majestic cacklers were almost extinct earlier this century. But black-necked giant Canada geese and white Arctic snow geese have made remarkable, albeit raucous, recoveries. Sound dandy? It isn’t.

Scientists warn that record numbers of lesser snow geese are placing the Arctic ecosystem in peril as an estimated six million birds grub away at the fragile tundra breeding grounds edging Hudson and James bays. This management problem has wildlife and conservation groups flocking together to find controls. The Arctic Goose Habitat Working Group–a joint government/private coalition–has studied the escalating lesser snow goose population explosion and Environment Canada’s Canadian Wildlife Service, CWS, is now reviewing recommendations. “When results were in one thing was sure. There are too many snow geese to support their native habitat. It has the potential to be a pretty far-reaching problem. We need to reduce the populations,” says Kathryn Dickson, a waterfowl populations biologist with the CWS in Ottawa.

Dickson adds that 660,000 greater snow geese in the eastern Arctic are causing “serious damage” to Quebec crop lands as they migrate to wintering grounds along the Atlantic seaboard.

Meanwhile, our erstwhile honorary icon, the race of Canada goose, called the giant Canada, is wearing out its welcome in urban areas throughout North America. The bird has become a nuisance, hanging out in parks, golf clubs and green spaces.

What constitutes a goose is a bit complicated: There are two main groups, at least seven species in North America, and then there are variations, called races. The Canada goose, for example, has more than 40 races, ranging from the one-kilogram cackling goose of Alaska to the heftier 10-kilogram giant.

“These geese are a big problem for us,” says Bruce Carr, district manager, recreation parks division for the City of Mississauga, Ont., near Toronto. “We have invested millions of dollars on our parks and people can’t use them.” For geese, though, the living conditions are ideal. The south end of the city borders Lake Ontario and there is plenty of Kentucky blue grass to eat.

“Here you make subjective decisions as to whether it is a goose problem or a human problem…but there is conflict between humans and geese. And geese don’t respect municipal boundaries,” says Tony Wagner, a spokesperson for the Waterfront Regeneration Trust, a non-profit initiative to clean up walking/biking trails along Lake Ontario from Stoney Creek to Trenton.

Not treading too lightly on the matter, Wagner says goose waste is a major problem. The trust and Mississauga belong to a multi-agency goose committee that’s working to reduce the giant population in what is called the Greater Toronto Bioregion, the area from Oshawa in the east to Dundas in the southwest. Mississauga alone has more than 2,500 giant ‘residents.’ These geese don’t migrate far, choosing instead to stay year-round in manicured urban grounds or any place near water.

Last year, the city had had enough and stepped into the issue. “We went to council to cull 1,000 geese but council decided relocation (of the geese) was the preferred option if possible,” says Carr.

Any culling–killing–of geese requires a permit from the Canadian Wildlife Service. Geese, like all migratory game birds, are protected under the Migratory Birds Convention Act, the Canadian legislation of a bilateral conservation agreement with the United States. The birds, which migrate to warmer regions for winter and return to original northern nesting sites in the spring, follow different flyways across North America. The main ones are the Pacific, the Central, the Mississippi and the Atlantic.

Carr found a home for 2,000 of Mississauga’s honkers down east. “But New Brunswick does not want any more geese,” he adds. “We are actively looking for other relocation sites.” By spring, the tally had dropped to 200. “But they will be back.”

Indeed. “Every indication is that Mississauga’s waterfront will again be inundated with thousands of geese,” notes this year’s recommendations to city council. The report estimates the goose population doubles every three to five years, and urges the city to make “every effort to find a willing host for our geese.” This year the city was to apply for a cull permit, and experiment penning 200 geese during their moult “when geese and park users are experiencing the most conflict.” Results from a March 1998 Environics survey conducted by the city found that 64 per cent of respondents ranked the goose problem as “very serious.”

The resurgence of the giants is impressive. For several decades this century it was thought extinct. The southern Ontario population now tops 250,000 breeding pairs. “The Canada goose is now a fixture on the southern Ontario landscape,” comments Dan Stuckey in the Bruce Trail News, Autumn 1997.

Goose droppings have people’s dander up, but there are other issues. Geese compete with other wildlife; health and water quality are of concern; land damage occurs when geese nest; crops are plundered; and there are traffic worries.

Ralph Watkins is greens superintendent of the upscale Wascana Country Club in Regina. “We’ve probably got one of the worst problems in the country but we have to coexist with them. They do quite well here,” says Watkins, estimating that 25,000 geese migrate through the area annually. More than 1,500 call the club, which is nestled beside a wildlife preserve, home.

Watkins’ front-line defence is Midge, a border collie that herds wandering geese back into ponds or frightens them into flight. “The geese figured out the dog run times so we had to mix it up.”

Midge is leased for approximately $5,000 a year, and Watkins says goose poop cleanup costs at least “a couple of hundred bucks a week” from April to October. What’s more, Watkins says some golfers have reported attacks by big ganders. He notes that the male geese have even tackled him. “But it’s in the eye contact. I can out-intimidate a goose,” he says before describing how he brandishes his arms like giant wings while staring down the gander.

Along with Midge, Watkins’ crew takes goose control measures any homeowner can use if visited with these grounds guests. “What we’ve done this year is fence off our property,” so geese stopping by the wildlife preserve can’t easily drop in. Gabion cages prevent geese climbing out of ponds. Naturalization, letting grasses grow taller by ponds, discourages geese from alighting in water because they prefer to watch for predators while swimming.

“Canada geese are a concern to a lot of commercial properties,” adds Teri Yamada, managing director of member services for the Royal Canadian Golf Association. Golf clubs have even introduced swans to their grounds because these birds don’t easily surrender territory. “Lord knows we’ve tried it all,” she laughs.

While Midge does a fine job, she’s only a short-term solution and geese can be a long-term problem; wild ones can live 15 years, captive ones 30. Once a herd dog is out of sight, back totter the geese. Chemical sterilization is expensive, requiring special equipment and training–and long-term commitment. Short of culling, egg oiling is popular but it, too, requires long-term commitment.

Freshly laid eggs are coated with a mineral oil that blocks the pores and suffocates the embryo. This is effective but labor-intensive–especially over large areas–as each nest must be located and each egg–geese can lay six eggs–oiled. Parent geese continue to sit on oiled eggs, not knowing they won’t hatch.

“And public education is essential,” adds Wagner. This means ‘don’t feed the geese.’

“The wildlife service recommends municipalities…develop a management plan,” Dickson says. “Modifying the local habitat can help.” Landowners can change landscapes to dissuade geese, but “if they are doing anything to affect the geese, a permit is needed.” The CWS must approve other actions such as oiling, shaking or poking holes in eggs.

Problems aside, geese are Canadian icons. Each spring we watch for the telltale ‘V,’ ‘M,’ or ‘check mark’ pattern as our geese come home, flying high at up to 1,000 metres. In autumn, as they race south at speeds of 70 kilometres an hour and honk a haunting goodbye, we know winter is near. “They are an image of Canada. I’ve grown more and more to respect them. They’re very protective. They’re smart and are good with their families,” adds Watkins.

Geese were early outpost staples. Hudson’s Bay Co. records note that on Christmas Day in 1705 the men received flour, rice, raisins, currants, mutton and “three fresh ‘whavers’ (wey-weys or geese).” The records also show that geese “could not only be got in great quantities but could also be salted, and eaten through the winter.” The typical daily ration was half a goose per man.

Wrote Joe Van Wormer in The World Of The Canada Goose: “The Canada is the one that most excites the imagination and quickens the heartbeat. Its call is clear and insistent…. It makes us pause at everyday tasks that suddenly seem dull while we scan the sky and listen to the distant honking. There is a quality to the sound that speaks of faraway places.”

Still, in other places, the frequent flyer is not welcome. More than 450 giants were killed last year in Clarkstown, 40 minutes north of New York City. A one-vote margin saved the geese necks this year. “There are a lot of people really fed up with the waste. It’s messy. It’s dirty. But it’s really been controversial and town meetings have been raucous,” says Kathryn Winiarski, an environment reporter for the Rockland Journal-News.

At issue is whether these geese are still migratory, and thereby protected by the U.S. Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the conservation pact with Canada, or ‘local’ pests that can be turfed. The American Coalition to Prevent the Destruction of Canada Geese, which has its own Internet site, lobbies Congress to protect the birds. And American actor Alec Baldwin has championed our goose in state ‘let-geese-live’ rallies. “Gandhi said you can judge a society by the way it treats its animals, and I believe that,” Baldwin said in a newspaper interview.

Anne French of the Clarkstown-area Audubon society appreciates the 1998 reprieve. “We don’t approve of the killing and have suggested various different methods of control.” Meanwhile the American National Audubon Society is keeping its distance. “The problems caused by Canadian geese are caused by geese rubbing elbows with people,” says spokesman John Bianchi.

In Minnesota our goose has been cooked the last few years as more than 2,000 have been culled and distributed with recipes to the poor. “After macaroni and green beans, the needy like getting the meat,” said Minnesota Department of Natural Resources spokesman Tom Dickson in an article that appeared in Alberta Report magazine.

One place drop-in giants are always welcome is Wawa, Ont., along the north shore of Lake Superior. A nine-metre-tall steel goose greets visitors with open wings. Legend says ‘wawa’ means goose. “It doesn’t,” states a local historian. Johanna Rowe says it means ‘egg.’ “Our goose is very, very important to the community. It’s a very strong symbol of our town.” The goose inspired famed Canadian balladeer Stompin’ Tom Connors to pen a song in its honor: “Honk, Honk,” said Little Wawa / “Honk, Honk my Gander-Goo. / In goose talk that means I love you and I always will be true, I always will be true.”

But do geese always stay true, mating for life? “There’s a lot of divorce in geese, we just don’t know about it,” chuckles Dr. Brian Gray, a waterfowl biologist with Ducks Unlimited Canada in Stonewall, Man., just north of Winnipeg.

Ducks Unlimited supports a reduction in the lesser snow goose population through increased hunting. Six million lesser snow geese are exhausting the Arctic tundra, Gray explains. The grubbing and over-grazing changes the ecosystem for other wildlife and also turns the ground cover to mud. It then takes decades for such lands to rejuvenate.

Hunting regulations, development of refuges and sanctuaries in both Canada and the U.S., along with better nutrition, have given geese a leg up on longer life. An abundance of agricultural leftovers sustains all geese as they make their way south for winter. “Probably the single factor that contributed most to the increase in Canadas was the advent of the mechanical cornpicker…it left a bountiful supply of food scattered on the ground,” said Thomas D. Fegely in Wonders of Geese and Swans.

Ducks Unlimited is also a member of the Arctic goose working group. In 1997, the group released the Arctic Ecosystems in Peril report that made several recommendations and warnings. “Large portions of the Arctic ecosystem are threatened with irreversible ecological degradation. Plant communities associated with goose breeding habitat…will likely be permanently lost unless there is effective human-induced intervention to reduce the size of certain goose populations.”

Dickson says the first step will likely make use of sport hunters. Options include increasing the bag limit–the number of allowable geese killed; lengthening the fall hunt or introducing a spring hunt; Sunday hunting; or letting hunters use bait or electronic goose calls. Any of these measures, however, require changes to the federal migratory bird act, which will then cover all possible migratory game birds. This means developing criteria as to what constitutes overabundant game birds. “These are all extraordinary methods and they would never be considered if there weren’t serious problems,” she stresses.

Gray welcomes changes, but has one reservation. “My prediction is that collectively the lesser snow geese are so smart they’ll figure out these electronic calls…. They’re very difficult to hunt. If you’ve got a flock of 500 birds, you’ve got 1,000 eyes looking out for one hunter.”

On the Atlantic coast, the greater snow geese breed near the Ellesmere islands and Greenland. This population has grown from a few thousand in the 1930s to more than 660,000. As these geese all migrate through Quebec and the St. Lawrence River Valley, they cause damage to marshes and agricultural lands. “But the problem hasn’t reached the (same) level of seriousness as the lesser snow goose,” notes Dickson, adding the CWS hopes to decrease or stabilize these numbers before there is fundamental damage.

She expects that some of the population reduction measures will be approved by the 1999—2000 hunting season, and that any actions will be humanely governed.

By taking a responsible approach to managing the goose population, it may be possible for wildlife experts to improve the living conditions for both bird and man. That said, a lot of us will look up this fall when we hear that familiar honking and are reminded of another passing year.

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