Geese Go Urban

Surging numbers are forcing cities to develop management strategies

Science by Gregory Beatty

geese

The weather last November, if you recall, was uber-mild. I’m Regina-based, and took advantage of the conditions to go for long walks in Wascana Park. Each summer, the park hosts a sizeable population of nesting Canada geese. Regina’s also a popular pit stop for migrating geese. So we’re used to seeing large concentrations on the lake in spring and fall.

But with the balmy weather thousands of geese extended their stay — feasting on the park’s Kentucky bluegrass, and on grain in fields outside town. Geese are pooping machines, producing a kilo of excrement a day. And with Wascana Centre Authority (WCA) having ceased its summer maintenance in preparation for winter (when geese typically aren’t around), you can imagine what the pathways looked like.

Who knows what the future holds for human versus goose relations due to climate change. Already, WCA has an active management program. It’s not alone, either. Canada geese are protected by migratory bird legislation in North America, and in recent decades their population has exploded, presenting no end of challenges for cities where they’ve established a (webbed) foot-hold.

If geese nest near airports, they can threaten airplanes. They can also trigger fecal coliform alerts at beaches and damage delicate ecosystems. When interacting with people, they can even be aggressive. Which isn’t to overplay the danger, but cities are finding it necessary to take drastic steps such as addling eggs and destroying nests to control the population.

Saskatoon’s not there yet, says pest management supervisor Jeff Boone, although Canada geese are on the city’s radar. “When you compare Wascana Park and the Saskatoon river valley, they are quite different in the way they support geese. The river valley isn’t prime habitat. The water flow limits the areas geese can nest, whereas Wascana Lake is more typical habitat.”

Lately though, Saskatoon has been installing more green spaces with water retention ponds, Boone says. “They act as geese habitat, and in the last few years we have been getting more anecdotal reports about Canada geese so we’re starting a monitoring program to determine if the number is on the rise.”

If that turns out to be true, the city could develop an information campaign as it has with coyotes, or perhaps even an active management program. And Boone has already reached out to WCA which are old-hands at goose management.

DELICATE BALANCE

“Canada geese have symbolic value in the park,” says WCA naturalist Sarah Turkeli. “People are used to seeing them; they’ve been feeding them for years [see sidebar]. On the other hand, many people dislike the mess. To combat that, we try to maintain a balance.”

To gauge the local goose population, WCA monitors the nests. “Since we started, we’ve found that each year there’s between 400 and 600,” says Turkeli. “Each nest, obviously, has a male and female, and they generally lay five or six eggs.”

Once the nests have been counted, she adds, they wait for the eggs to hatch (or not) and reassess the population to see if some need to be relocated.

WCA’s goose management doesn’t just benefit people, it also provides a wing-up for other waterfowl, says Turkeli. “In Saskatchewan we have roughly 409 bird species. Of that number, 257 nest on our marsh site, and all of Wascana Centre. Canada geese are one species, certainly, but if we manage the population others have an opportunity to nest too.”

Geese are a food source for predators, so that further promote biodiversity, says Turkeli. “Some people don’t like to hear it, but it’s part of nature. We have coyotes that help control our pest population. They’re here until the ice melts, and if the geese come back early they may fall prey to them. We have mink as well, and other animals that predate on the geese or eggs.”

MODEST PROPOSAL

WCA’s most dramatic goose management technique is relocation. Each June after goslings hatch, geese molt and can’t fly until their feathers grow out. They can be rounded up then and shipped out.

“We haven’t relocated any in the last two years because populations have been low,” says Turkeli. “Two years ago, temperatures were back and forth and a low amount of eggs hatched. Then last year there was a high predation rate and a lot of them just disappeared.

“But we have relocated in the past to Cumberland Lake, and that helps alleviate the goose population during the busy summer time.”

Looking at relocation as layperson, I’ve long wondered what impact the sudden intrusion of hordes of Canada geese have on Saskatchewan’s northern ecosystem. Sizewise, geese are huge compared to other waterfowl, and they aggressively protect their territory. Surely they’d wreak havoc?

University of Regina biologist Mark Brigham wonders, though, if the opposite isn’t true. Brigham’s a bat expert, so geese aren’t his specialty. But he says that while we might think relocation for geese is humane, the reality is likely much different.

“My sense without having studied these animals in detail is that in all probability you’re sentencing them to death. Once they’re up there, they don’t know where they are, or where they should migrate to. They also have to compete with local animals. So you’re really putting them in a situation that’s cruel and nasty.”

When I contacted Brigham, I had a proposal in mind. It’s offered up now in the spirit of Jonathan Swift’s famous 1729 satiric essay, but a pilot project was successful in New York, so it’s not strictly satire.

Instead of rounding up what are essentially tame geese and dispatching them into the wild when numbers are plentiful, what if we set up an urban harvest program?

“I think it’s far better to do that than spend money to ship them up north,” says Brigham. “They have up to 12 young each year, so they’re productive beasts. It could become the city’s annual donation to help people in the community.”

Goose used to be prized in the human diet (think Tiny Tim and the Christmas goose in A Christmas Carol). Now, it’s rarely eaten.

One reason is because it’s a pain to cook, producing tons of fat. But gourmands value the fat as a delicacy, and if a way could be found to process the geese efficiently they could be a locavore food source as happened in New York, where over 1000 geese nesting near airports were shipped to a slaughterhouse before being donated to food banks.

Once the geese are shipped north, says Brigham, it’s a case of out of sight, out of mind. “Because it appears natural, people are willing to accept it. But nature is a cruel, tough place. I think it’s much more humane to use them directly. They could be a fine source of protein for people who don’t get a lot of good protein.”


Bread Is Bad

As anyone who has seen Regina’s Canada geese in action knows, they are voracious grass-eaters. Courtesy of park visitors, they also get fed bread. And that’s a big no-no.

“People love to do it, and the geese are used to it,” says WCA naturalist Sarah Turkeli. “But bread is high calorie and has no nutritional value for geese. In fact, it can lead to health problems such as angel wing, along with increasing their excrement.”

The problem is serious enough, says Turkeli, that WCA has launched a Bread is Bad campaign. “We direct people to our display pond by Conexus Arts Centre. They can feed them grain there. That would be ideal, where we limit it to one area. Of course, people feed them in different areas. So we’re getting out during peak times in prime locations and making people aware what the impacts are, and about options such as fresh grapes, lettuce and spinach that are better.”