Invasion of the Canada geese

Towns across suburban America are at war with millions of Canada geese. Why have these migratory birds given up their long-distance lifestyle to settle in the U.S., and why do people hate them so?

Why are there so many geese?

The Canada goose (Branta canadensis) is a migratory waterbird that traditionally spends summers in Canada and winters in the northern half of the U.S. By the early 1960s, illegal hunting had brought the Canada goose to the brink of extinction. So wildlife biologists made a deliberate effort to incubate their eggs and introduce them to areas of the U.S. where they were once unknown. It worked only too well. Geese like to eat closely mown grass and swim in ponds, so they found delightful homes in golf courses, office campuses, and public parks. People also fed them out of misplaced kindness. Given such a hospitable environment and plenty of food, the geese began staying in suburban communities year-round, instead of migrating.

How many are there?

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From 2.7 million to 3.5 million in the continental U.S., according to different estimates. At current rates of reproduction, the population could more than double in the next decade.

Why are they a nuisance?

They are prodigious poopers. A mature Canada goose can weigh up to 24 pounds, and eats a lot of grass. It defecates a tablespoon-sized lump of droppings about every 20 minutes, and it will do so up to 50 times a day. That adds up to 3 pounds of feces every 24 hours. Multiply that by 3.5 million birds, and you’ve got about 10 million pounds of green turds carpeting soccer fields, baseball diamonds, playgrounds, suburban lawns, and genteel golf courses. In addition to being just plain icky, the highly acidic manure kills grass and contains a riot of bacteria like salmonella and E. coli. Parents get very upset when their 5-year-olds go to play in the grass, and come back speckled with slimy goose guano.

Do the geese pose any other problems?

Collisions between airborne geese and airplanes are increasingly common; several years ago, a military plane crashed after hitting a flock of geese, killing 18 people. More commonly, the birds are a menace to land-based traffic. Through frequent exposure, geese quickly grow blasé about speeding vehicles, and they have no fear of ambling back and forth across busy streets, scaring the bejesus out of drivers and occasionally causing accidents. Canada geese are also fierce guardians of their young, and will attack humans who come too close. The birds are equipped for combat: They can deliver a nasty little bite with their beaks and have a callouslike ”knuckle” at the elbow joint of their wings that can knock a grown man senseless.

What’s being done about them?

Practically everything, with little success. Disgusted homeowners and community leaders have employed scare tactics like shotgun blasts, whistles, mechanical scarecrows, fluttering flags, decoy dead geese, and cardboard cutouts of dogs. Some communities have bought Border collies to chase the geese away; in Montvale, N.J., the board of health released two pairs of bigger, stronger, and meaner South African geese to frighten 30 of their Canadian cousins out of the municipal pond. One Chicago outfit is marketing the GooseBuster, an $850 sound system whose pre-recorded goose distress calls are supposed to cause the real birds to take panicky flight. Some towns have tried a form of goose birth control—“addling” goose eggs, or shaking them to destroy the embryos. Since most of these tactics only bring temporary or partial relief, communities such as Mahopac, N.Y., have had goose roundups in which the hissing fowl are netted and carted off to be slaughtered.

Why doesn’t every town do this?

You need a special permit. Canada geese are federally protected by the International Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 (16 USC 703-711), developed to protect birds that travel among Canada, the U.S., and Mexico. If a town or village wants to rein in its denizens by slaughter, it must go through a time-consuming permit process with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The government does seem to be taking the problem seriously: From 1995 to 2000, Fish and Wildlife issued about 5,200 permits.

How do animal lovers feel about this treatment?

They’re appalled. “It just seems radically unfair,” says Wayne Johnson of the Seattle-area Northwest Animal Rights Network. “Suddenly, because they poop, they are being looked at as pests.” In communities that have decided to kill geese to reduce their populations, animal-rights activists have filed lawsuits to stop the carnage, started letter-writing campaigns, and called elected officials mean names. Goose advocate Sharon Pawlak of Medford, N.J., thinks that instead of slaughtering the birds, humans would do better to emulate them. “The father works just as hard to take care of the young as the mother does,” she says.

Are there any solutions?

The Fish and Wildlife Service is currently considering a proposal to give state wildlife authorities new powers to destroy eggs and nests, trap and kill birds, and expand hunting. The goal of the plan is to reduce the goose population in the lower 48 states by 25 percent. New York Sen. Chuck Schumer also wants the Fish and Wildlife Service to consider nonlethal methods, such as addling, but he favors whatever it takes to get things under control. “We’re not going to get into a pro-life debate over geese,” he says.

Goose on the menu

Several states, including Missouri, New York, and Michigan, have tried turning Canada geese into a low-cost food for the indigent. Perhaps the most ambitious attempt to cook goose was a 1996 program in Minnesota that some dubbed “Operation Goose Bump.” Under this pre–Jesse Ventura initiative, about 2,000 Canada geese were slaughtered, gutted, plucked, frozen, and given to local food banks, complete with recipes. The experiment was a modest success. “After macaroni and green beans,” said a spokesman, “the needy really like getting the meat.” A highly unscientific survey found that on a scale of 1 to 10, diners rated the meat a 7 in the summer and a 9 in the fall, after the geese had fattened up for the winter. In the same summer-fall survey, 86 percent and 100 percent, respectively, answered yes to the question “Would you use this goose-meat product again if offered?” An interim report concluded that Operation Goose Bump was “an accepted and effective technique for nuisance goose control.” So far, serving geese to the homeless has not gained national acceptance.

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