No Honking Matter

Canada geese are wearing out their welcome in suburbs along the Atlantic Flyway

12-01-1992 // Doug Stewart

Norman Heifetz, facilities manager of the Bytex Corporation, remembers with a mixture of fondness and frustration the industrial park in Southboro, Massachusetts, where his electronics firm set up shop in the mid-1980s. The site was meticulously landscaped, with two ponds that invited restful contemplation.

When the ponds also proved an invitation to Canada geese, he recalls, "We thought, 'Isn't this beautiful?' People started feeding them. Then the geese had babies, and everyone thought they were cute. All of a sudden, we had an army of them. We had to hose down the sidewalks."

Heifetz tried mightily to make the geese leave. He banged pots and pans at them. He bought $350 worth of floating plastic swans, which he'd heard would terrify the geese (not true). He crept through underbrush, jumped up and fired blanks at the birds with a starter's pistol. "The geese just looked at me," he says. Finally, he bought a $500 radio-controlled speedboat to chase the birds. But even that only worked temporarily. Then, last year, much to Heifetz's relief, the company moved.

In flight, Canada geese can be a thrilling sight. But on the ground the bird can be a walking, flapping, honking contradiction: This symbol of the great outdoors, of crisp fall days and the mysteries of migration, is also a gluttonous, bad-tempered, loose-boweled trespasser. And though no hard data exist, experts agree the bird's numbers are exploding in this country.

The problem is most evident in the Atlantic Flyway. From northern Quebec to Florida, nonmigrating Canada geese — primarily the giant subspecies — may account for a quarter of the more than 600,000 in the midwinter population. Seventy years ago, in contrast, most Canada geese were migrants. And the giant subspecies was nearly extinct, a victim of overhunting. Then, as now, truly migratory Canadas nested almost exclusively in northern Canada. During the spring and fall migrations, the Northeast and upper Midwestern states are just stopovers on the way to and from wintering grounds farther south.

Now, as giants multiply, migrant geese numbers are shrinking. The winter population of all Canada geese in the U.S. part of the flyway dropped from 955,000 to 655,000 between 1981 and 1992. That suggests the number of truly migrant geese has dropped more sharply than the total (in part, perhaps, due to weather extremes in their breeding grounds).

With a wingspan of 6 feet or more and a body weight that can exceed 20 pounds, the giant Canada — the largest wild game bird — has long been prized as the big game of American waterfowl. Today's resident flocks in the United States are probably descendants of captive birds bred by gamesmen in northern states and used as decoys, a practice outlawed in 1935. (Although there has been some genetic mixing, residents and migrants have tended not to mingle.) Later, in the 1960s, the sedentary habits of giant Canadas made them the fowl of choice for stocking federal wildlife refuges: The birds are always around for nature lovers, and they aren't in danger of perishing elsewhere.

As the birds' numbers have surged, so have complaints from human neighbors—about droppings, all-night honking, crop damage and aggressiveness. Most protests come from the grassy northeastern suburbs, where the resident fowl migrate only short distances, if at all. When the geese do take to the air, if they're low enough for you to hear their honking clearly, they're likely just moving from the park to the golf course.

In feeding style, Canada geese are more cow than duck. Says Janet Sillings, a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) biologist, "They like short-mown, fertilized grass, which describes most of northern New Jersey." Sillings's office, the animal damage control unit, receives more complaints about problem geese than about any other creature. One pair built a nest within a few feet of a corporation's main entrance. Another company complained about geese nesting on the roof and acting territorial on the pavement. "The gander was down on the sidewalk keeping people from getting to work," she says.

People have made the region into prime goose habitat. Says Sillings, "It has huge residential areas, lots of corporate parks with acres and acres of mown grass and ponds. Combine that with no predators to speak of, and the geese have no reason to move." And if they do, they probably won't go far. Migration patterns are not inborn; geese seem to learn them by example. If a goose grows up on an island in the middle of a water trap by the fifteenth hole, that's where it returns.

Because Canadas are large birds that eat virtually nonstop, damage to farm crops can be considerable. In addition to grains, "I've had farmers say they even go after broccoli and apples," says the USDA's Laura Henze, who is based in western Massachusetts. But most of all, the geese love succulent young shoots of lovingly tended grass.

Mead Park, a 40-acre expanse of pastoral New Canaan, Connecticut, is a case in point. Says Steve Benko, the town's recreation director, "We have no grass around the pond at all now. We'll put down new grass seed, and as soon as the seeds germinate, the geese come along and eat them." Benko had wanted to plant wildflowers around the pond, which serves as a landing strip. (Geese prefer wide-open spaces with plenty of taxiing room and good sight lines in all directions; tall hedges and fences make them nervous.) "But we figured the geese would eat the flowers as soon as they started to come up," he says.

The most common complaint about Canada geese has to do with what becomes of what they eat. An adult Canada goose can leave behind a pound of droppings a day. On the playing fields of New Canaan's junior high school, outfielders now dread long rollers through the infield gap.

The droppings may be more than just a nuisance. On Long Island Sound in recent summers. beach closures have become common after flocks of several hundred defecating Canada geese waddle onto beaches to pick up grit for their gizzards. Health officials are blaming geese feces for raised fecal-coli form bacteria levels in shellfish flats on Cape Cod and in inland lakes in suburban New York, although the evidence against the geese remains circumstantial. Officials also worry that geese might taint reservoirs in the Northeast.

Once Canada geese settle into an area. they can be nearly impossible to uproot. In Belmont, Massachusetts, several hundred geese have become a fixture of the high-school playing fields in the center of town. "If there's a soccer game.they move to the football field. If there's a football game, they move to the soccer field," says Donna Saia, a secretary in the town's health department.

Belmont has been waging a futile harassment campaign against the geese. I lighway workers have flapped towels and yelled at the birds at dawn. Policemen have fired firecrackers from shotguns. Considered and rejected: loud rock-and-roll, pink flamingos with spinning wings and a one-day hunt, the meat to be donated to the homeless.

"We heard that geese don't like garlic, so we considered loading garlic oil into the sprinkler system, but we haven't tried that yet," Saia says. Citizen dog-walkers were enlisted to come at specified times to let their dogs chase the geese. "But," says Saia, "a dog has to be pretty darned big to scare off these geese." Actually handling or killing the geese is illegal unless during hunting season in an area where hunting is allowed.

Canada geese are fiercely territorial, particularly during the spring nesting season. A flapping, honking Canada goose recently chased one woman golfer in downstate New York right into the water. Another attacked the limousine of a corporate president at the business's front door.

The geese are programmed to claim and defend enough territory to feed themselves. "When you feed them," says Jay Hestbeck, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, "you overwhelm that traditional instinct. You cause the geese to bunch together, since their first instinct is to eat; defending territory is secondary. So you end up with higher concentrations of geese in an area, bigger flocks and more droppings."

But giving $20 fines to goose feeders, as some Massachusetts towns are now threatening, won't get to the root of the Canada goose problem. Neither will hunting, since most suburbs don't allow it and hunters might not be able to distinguish residents from migrants. Some communities are taking out federal permits to oil, puncture or otherwise damage goose eggs. This tactic only works, however, if the geese are breeding locally. Vasectomies, too, are an option, though expensive. The USDA is now testing a food additive used in bubble gum as a possible goose repellent: It's harmless to grass and humans, but geese apparently hate the taste.

For now, the only recourse is to scare away new populations before they become entrenched. And once the birds are in place, maybe there's a small consolation in the pleasures of noisily making a fool of oneself at dawn, spinning those flamingo wings or mastering the radio-controls of a toy speedboat.

Free-lance writer Doug Stewart lives enclosed by goose-defying fences in coastal Massachusetts.

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