It was a balmy June morning last year at Degnan Lake, a small body of water surrounded by the municipal ball fields, playgrounds and parking lots in urban West Orange, New Jersey. Bordered by paved footpaths and mowed grass on three sides, the area is oddly devoid of bird life normally associated with natural lakes. To some, the lifeless Degnan is the new ideal: lakes, ponds and streams stripped of native plants and animals, framed by fertilized turf grass and macadam. It’s the biological and aesthetic equivalent of an indoor swimming pool.
The sole grace note in the patchwork of lawn, turf grass, chain link fences and garish plastic toys was the lake itself. In the middle of the lake was a small, verdant island. And on the island, visible only through binoculars, was a lovely family of Canada geese. The mother was resting in the tall grass, her neck bowed, her clutch of goslings nestled securely under wing. A few feet away, the gander stood guard while his family slept. Moments later, the family swam over to meet me. As the parents shepherded their seven yellow young ones onto the bank, we greeted one another with mutual curiosity and trust. Shaded in black, the adults’ eyes were intelligent, bright, and sweet. Sensing nothing much in the offing, the gander soon coaxed his family back in the water, and to the safety of the island. Bothering no one, the geese simply wanted to be left alone.
The scene was ineffably sad. Visitors to the park that morning weren’t bothered by the geese; some stopped to appreciate their presence. Yet the gentle Degnan family and other equally elusive township geese stood accused of overrunning West Orange — of posing a vague, undefined health and safety threat to park going residents. In 2003, the township had rounded up and destroyed an unknown number of Canada geese and ducks, including mallards and domesticated Pekins, at the site. The Degnan adults had managed to escape. But not last year. By June 18, 2004, the family would be killed. West Orange Mayor and New Jersey Assemblymember John McKeon likened the planned kill to “finishing a prescription.”
They call it community-based management. New Jersey, with the most dense human population of any state in the nation, operates a de facto laboratory for wildlife eradication programs. Under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Fish and Wildlife Service, Canada geese and mallard ducks deemed nuisances are shot, rounded-up and trucked to slaughter or gassed under cooperative agreements among local, state, and federal authorities. Roundups occur during the molt, when adults lose their primary flight feathers and, for a few weeks, become vulnerable to capture. Wood ducks, mallards, domestic geese, and swans are collateral yet deliberate targets in roundups that drain lakes and streams of naturally occurring life, grace, and beauty.
The Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Service is run as a business, paying staff through killing contracts with private and public clients. Of its annual New Jersey $350,000 budget, up to three-quarters comes from client contracts, and five major initiatives involve Canada geese. This arrangement leads to a correlative, negative orientation toward wildlife, a strong financial incentive for maximizing supposed threats posed by geese, and prompt reliance on the department’s aggressively marketed legal schemes.
In late spring, prior to the molt, sub-adult or non-breeding young Canada geese and unsuccessful nesting pairs will leave breeding areas to fly as far as northern Quebec to seek protective molting grounds. Parents, who must stay behind to raise goslings, are taken.
Roundups are conducted at dawn, in cordoned off areas guarded by police. Residents and the media are generally prohibited from witnessing roundup activity. The Agriculture Department instructs its workers to stop if media representatives appear. Newspaper headlines throughout the U.S. demonstrate that outraged residents are the last to know. Until then, safely out of view, workers separate goslings from parents and corral the panicked birds into pens. Other methods of capture include netted panel traps, swim-in traps or nets, and seizure by hand. Often, goslings end up at hunting preserves.
Canada Geese as Livestock
By the mid-1950s, hunters rendered Canada geese nearly extinct. Beginning in the 1960s, wildlife agencies and private collaborators re-stocked geese for hunting. Isolated colonies from Minnesota and private hunting lands went to hunting preserves, national wildlife refuges and wildlife management areas, and became the progenitors of the northeastern region’s resident geese. Over the years, birds genetically inclined to travel greater distances south may have been steadily removed from the population by hunters who have spotted them, while a large population of permanent residents has safely staked out territory, stayed, and multiplied.
By the mid-1990s, public distaste for these resident geese was running high. The Fish and Wildlife Service started intermeddling with the birds in earnest, drawing up regional initiatives to addle the birds’ eggs and rounding up adults for slaughter. (The meat, they’ve assured the public, is donated to homeless shelters.) Officials at the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Maryland concluded that over half of its more than 5,000 resident geese must be done away with, by hunting or official killing schemes. By 1999, the 17 states along the Atlantic Flyway approved a goose-management plan to employ these methods to reduce the resident population by 550,000 birds — almost half. While destroying Canada geese, Blackwater refuge managers admitted their own role in the population boom: “This increase may be the result of the exploitation of man-made food resources,” they wrote, citing the planting of clovers, corn, winter wheat, buckwheat and other agricultural crops planted on the refuge, and noting that such habitat change resulted in “better reproductive success… and few predators” for the geese.
The federal Department of Agriculture actively sponsors initiatives that amount to free-range goose farming: habitat modification aimed at increasing migratory Canada geese and other waterfowl whose numbers otherwise could not withstand the hunting pressure. Trapping natural predators, such as raccoons and foxes, de rigueur policy on refuges, adding to the aura of productive farming of geese.
And state hunting agencies are salaried by hunters’ licensing fees. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that a central goal of the National Wildlife Refuge System is intense production of hunted waterfowl. The federal Wildlife Service’s waterfowl production areas and joint ventures for hunted ducks and migratory Canada geese continue to impact various areas’ local geese, who flee outlying resting or feeding areas for safer suburban and urban settings.
But not, perhaps, for long. In 1994, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service defined the future of hunting: “The outdoor recreation experience will change because emphasis will shift to providing wildlife-associated outdoor recreation in or near urban centers.”
What’s Good for the Goose May Be Deceptive
Geese seek tundra nesting conditions: Land near water, with a clear line of sight, permits adults to identify intruders and escape predators, especially during the nesting season. Native foliage of the northeast, with its layers and grouped trees and shrubs, does not attract large congregations of geese. Tearing down forests, replacing them with airports, hotels, and golf courses — in short, ecological degradation — is at the root of increased Canada goose nesting in the northeastern United States. State, county and local parks, shorn of native vegetation, are a major problem.
Ecological restoration could help address the imbalance; and as the work of David Suzuki and other ecologists indicate, it might also enable us to reduce dependence on pesticide, to improve soil, air, and water quality, and to restore habitat for a broad spectrum of species, including our own, as vacant areas become meadowlands teeming with butterflies and birds, as plants release absorbed rainwater into the air, as wetlands and estuaries purify water and control flooding, with cattails catching and filtering rainfalls and stream flows, removing toxins, and gradually releasing water into creeks and rivers.
Artificial landscapes, in contrast, carry hidden, often lethal costs for native wildlife. Cholinesterase inhibitor-based pesticides, commonly used to sustain mowed grass and gardens, poison birds by overstimulating their delicate nervous systems, causing acute neurotoxicity or death. The pesticide also drains or leeches into retention ponds.
For campuses and sports fields, marinas, housing projects with storm water retention ponds, agricultural property, and salt marsh restoration sites, hope is within reach. Geese may be dissuaded from setting up residence near fences, lines of shrubs or trees, barrier rocks, decks, native grasses and wildflowers. State, county and local leaders must embrace enlightened forms of managing public green spaces. Local governments can and should encourage responsible private management of corporate parks and golf courses.
A Trusting Nature
Unless attacked or intimidated, Canada geese pose no threat to humans. A number of agencies — even the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who have relied on the public fear of disease to kill the birds — have found that any health risks posed by the geese are “minimal.” Described as “innately placid and highly adaptable to human rearing,” the birds’ penchant for peacefully living alongside people is often their undoing.
During the nesting and setting phase, the female is especially dependent upon her lifetime mate. Patrolling the general nesting area, the gander watches the nest, prepared to fly back to it in an instant. Alternatively, he will show himself as a decoy, leading the intruder away from the nest. Hissing and beating his wings, he will chase anyone who ventures too close to the nest. His behavior is called bluffing, for the intent is not to harm, but to keep the intruder — fox, owl, or human — away from the nest. A calm about-face will end the engagement. Beavers, muskrats, and other species with whom geese peacefully co-exist instinctively know this. A beaver set upon by a bluffing gander charts a change in course without fanfare or injury.
Distinct from bluffing, unprovoked physical attacks by geese are rare. Given their tendency to live in close proximity to humans, the paucity of conflicts is remarkable. Veteran nature writer and biologist Bernd Heinrich writes of the gentle temperament of Peep, a female Canada goose he studied from the gosling to adult stage: “From the time she was a yellow fluffball… until she grew into a splendid specimen of adulthood, the one word that described her character (in human terms) was ‘sweetness’ — she grew up to be reticent, but she never showed a sign of fear.” Geese will actively seek out trusted humans for protection or assistance.
Enjoy Life with Waterfowl
Although there remains a vocal minority of intolerant residents, public opinion polls show consistent and strong public preference for peacefully co-existing with free-living animals. There are several ways to encourage this preference. It is always wise for humans to keep a respectful distance from the animals — even from a species as adapted to humans as geese. During Canada goose nesting season, education is a key. Signs advising residents to allow nesting geese ample space, explaining that parents are highly protective of their goslings, can ameliorate the fear of conflicts. Parents should be advised to instruct young children not to approach or chase geese.
Here’s an example of how it works, from England. In response to a problem caused by people feeding ducks and harming the water quality of a Gloucestershire lake, nobody rushed to blame, let alone round up, the birds.
The town simply posted signs at the lake ahead of the warm summer weather, warning visitors not to feed the birds. The council believed the birds should be encouraged to scavenge for themselves. The signs read: “Please stop feeding bread to the birds. Wildfowl need to forage for a balanced diet.”
This helped to alleviate the nutrient in the water, and relieved local fish of the danger of suffocating. It prevented pollution. It also treated birds with respect.
In the same way people in England are able to make room for waterfowl, with respect and joyful appreciation, and without needless fear, we can all enjoy life with the birds who share our world.
Think ahead: Don’t wait for a manufactured crisis to develop. Monitor your community’s parks and playing fields of mowed grass adjacent to water or stripped of native vegetation. Address negative local press and attend town meetings to ensure that other animals are accorded ethical consideration.
Contact Friends of Animals: We will in turn contact your local or county government to facilitate landscape restoration.