All About Birds Blog

Where Did All Those Canada Geese in Town Come From?

By on Tuesday, September 17th, 2013 - 21 Comments

Monique, http://flic.kr/p/55ugi9

By Pat Leonard

Even if you’re not a bird watcher, chances are you know what Canada Geese look like. Love them or hate them, there sure are a lot of them—in parks, on golf courses, maybe even your backyard. It’s hard to believe there was a time when these birds were on the brink of being wiped out in North America. Now, they’re overrunning our city parks, golf courses, and farm fields, crowding our national wildlife refuges, and causing hazards at airports. There are even concerns about public health and water quality from all those goose droppings.

Canada Geese are a native species whose recent population explosion is thanks to human effects on the landscape. So what can or should be done about them? We checked in with Cornell Lab conservation scientist Ken Rosenberg and Paul Curtis, who coordinates Cornell’s Wildlife Damage Management program. They described the differences between migratory and resident Canada Geese, the problems that can arise from high goose populations, and a range of approaches for approaching Canada Goose problems.

goose_chart

How Many?
According to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2013 report [PDF], there are more than 5 million breeding Canada Geese in North America. But within that vast number are two distinct populations: migratory birds that breed in northern North America and winter in central and southern North America; and resident birds that live in and around towns year-round. Both migratory and resident numbers have increased, but most of the trouble has come from resident birds.

Most Canada Geese used to be migratory—those big vees of “honkers” that signal the change in seasons each year as they pass overhead. Though there are still several million migratory Canada Geese, for a period at the end of the nineteenth century they became scarce. (Overhunting, egg collecting, and development of wetlands were among the causes of the decline.) In the 1930s, efforts to restore their numbers led to government-sponsored releases of resident “giant” Canada Geese for hunting. Not long after, as lawns started to proliferate, many of these resident geese flocks began to thrive and expand their range. Though resident and migratory geese may mingle during winter, they retain separate breeding ranges and do not typically interbreed.

Now, even with hunting pressure to the tune of 3.2 million geese per year in North America, the resident population continues to grow. These hunting numbers combine migratory and resident birds—it’s often hard to separate them out on their wintering grounds. But most biologists believe there are far too many resident geese—more than can be sustained in urban-suburban areas.

Few Curbs on Population

Resident Canada Geese have adjusted well to living near people, with few significant curbs on their numbers. Resident geese in cities and suburbs are safe from most predators, many people like to feed them, and they are less vulnerable to hunting because they tend to live in settled areas where firearm restrictions often apply. By contrast, migratory Canada Goose populations are held in check by migration mortality, predation, late winter storms, and hunting. Resident geese begin nesting at a younger age and produce larger clutches than migratory geese. It’s no wonder their numbers are rising so fast.

As a result, it’s the resident birds that typically cause crop damage and provoke public nuisance complaints—which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says are at an all-time high and increasing every year.

Ducklover Bonnie, http://flic.kr/p/9Df6evConflicts With People

Canada Geese are one of the few bird species that can digest grass, so they do well on the large expanses of lawn in parks, backyards, golf courses, farm fields, and airports. Resident geese have also overrun most native wetlands in the East, including the National Wildlife Refuges that were created to protect the migratory populations, as well as the diversity of other native wetland species. Aviation safety is a concern, too. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) estimates there are 240 goose-aircraft collisions each year nationwide, though some of these (like the flock that in 2009 notoriously caused U.S. Airways flight 1549 to go down in the Hudson River) can be traced to migratory birds.

There are also concerns about public health because goose droppings in water used for swimming or drinking may contain high coliform counts. The birds’ aggressive territoriality during breeding season may result in human threats or attacks. Droppings and overgrazing may create property damage, including erosion and reduced water quality in ponds.

What Can Be Done?

Canada Geese are a protected species under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. This protection applies to both resident and migratory geese. Neither individuals nor governmental entities may launch lethal control efforts without the proper federal, state, and (if needed) local permits. Finding out what rules and regulations apply is the first step, accomplished by contacting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (or Environment Canada) and your state’s wildlife agency.

Experts warn that no single management technique is going to be effective in deterring Canada Geese, and it’s vital to get buy-in from the community for whichever techniques are contemplated. The most commonly used techniques include preventing public feeding, altering the habitat to reduce its attractiveness to geese, hazing to scare geese away, using chemical repellents, hampering reproduction, and lethally removing the geese (for more information, see our list of resources at the end of this post).

The Cornell Lab’s Position

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s focus is to conserve and maintain healthy populations of native wild birds. Where warranted because of health or environmental concerns, we support humane efforts to reduce the overpopulation of resident Canada Geese. Because this problem is so widespread, often the only effective option is to use humane lethal methods such as suppressing reproduction or removing individuals. Geese are long-lived (some live more than 30 years) and in suburban areas closed to hunting, removal of breeding-age adults is one of the few effective ways to reduce population growth.

That said, we know firsthand how attached some people can become to individual birds or flocks in their neighborhoods. Not all communities may choose to reduce goose populations. But conflicts will only continue to grow if measures are not taken to curb the runaway growth of these birds.

Excellent resources exist to help you learn more about options for managing Canada Geese, including:

(Graph data from North American Breeding Bird Survey. Images via Birdshare: geese on golf course by Monique; goose on car by Ducklover Bonnie. This post was edited on September 24, 2013, to clarify the Cornell Lab’s position on nuisance Canada Geese. )

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21 Comments

  1. Joyce Kelly says:

    My husband, not really a birder, recently read somewhere that migratory and resident Canada geese are separate species. True or false? I read above that they do not normally interbreed, but are they really separate species? Thanks!

    • Hugh says:

      Hi Joyce – there are many different subspecies of Canada Goose, and one similar species, the Cackling Goose, that was only recently officially recognized as a separate species. Most resident Canada Geese are of the “giant” subspecies. Resident geese don’t usually have the opportunity to interbreed with migratory Canada Geese, but they are not considered separate species. Thanks for the question – Hugh

      • Ricky says:

        Hi Hugh. Is the resident population a recognized sub species? If so, what is it called? The article mentions the government released them which I took to mean the now large population of ‘wild’ geese was at one time in captivity. Have we significantly altered this bird’s genetics through selective breeding? Thanks!

  2. Kira says:

    I find this to be one of the more negative and inflammatory articles that I have read in a long time. I would expect to see something like this from a disgruntled, intolerant golfer writing an opinion piece in the local paper, not by an esteemed institution like Cornell.

    The author seems to take at face value the notion that goose droppings pollute bodies of water. At least where I live, it was revealed that the politicians were using geese to distract the public from massive, incessant sewage leaks.. Human sewage, pesticides, overuse of fertilizer, agricultural runoff, and many other human-created problems pollute our water. Not geese. The EPA agrees with me on this one. Yet it was, and is, easier to blame or kill the geese than to change our lifestyle and fix the real issues. Goose droppings are a drop in the bucket compared to what we really have to contend with.

    Your picture shows a golfer surrounded by geese. How come it does not show the tons of toxic pesticides that are dumped on the golf course and the tragic effects that has on our planet? Golfers have no right to complain about wildlife, as they have created a toxic, artificial playground and expect animals to keep off and complain when they don’t.

    And also regarding air safety, this is horribly inflammatory and blown out of proportion. Bird strikes (and ALL birds can cause bird strikes) account for a very small percentage of plane crashes. Pilot error, mechanical problems, etc. are the main issue. Resident geese rarely fly into flight paths as they simply pond-hop and lounge around local areas.

    And you also trivialize people’s “attachment” to their local flock of resident geese. Yes, people grow fond of wildlife they see every day and don’t like the see the USDA gas them to death. Obviously.

    I find this article far too accepting of lethal management, and it is shameful that it comes from Cornell. I have lost a great deal of respect for this institution based on this.

    • Rebecca Duffeck says:

      Thanks Kira for your post shining proper light on this negative article from a supposedly esteemed institution. Canada geese can’t seem to get a break. They are being blamed for everything from plane crashes to water pollution caused by human waste. The USDA, nothing more than “Killers” for hire for our taxpayer’s dollars will go anywhere to slaughter these noble creatures as long as there are despicable golf course owners, lazy park officials or anyone who detest wildlife to the point of having them thrown into gas chambers for their own self serving motives.

    • Laura says:

      Kira, thank you so much for validating and articulating my own disappointment with Cornell and this author/scientist. It is difficult to reconcile the author’s inflammatory article, with his subsequent reply about Cornell members “caring deeply about the environment, conservation and birds.” With geese having “friends” like Cornell, who needs enemies…

    • M Leybra says:

      Kira, I could not have said it better. And when the hired well-paid killers have gassed the geese & all the water & land pollution continues to worsen, Cornell’s Ornithology Lab will quietly slither away. They’re shameless.

  3. Amy says:

    It appears that this author has a bias which I find odd for a respected publication. This article simply regurgitates the negative perception of most mainstream thought. It seems odd that the supported solution would be for local park districts and city councils to round up and kill these majestic birds. Egg addling yes, this is the most humane method but merely glossed over. An avid bird watcher should know these birds mate for life, mourn their losses (even appearing depressed at the loss of a mate for weeks) care for the young of others, and always return to a place they feel home. Humans professing their disgust of this behavior is the true tragedy of this situation. You can poop on my car and land on my golf course after your 3,000 mile journey and it wouldn’t bother me one bit.

  4. Kira says:

    I really think Cornell needs to remove this post, or in some way distance itself from it, or publish a response. This is highly inappropriate and inflammatory. Even the caption on the chart “Explosive Growth of Canada Geese.” Explosive? Is that the author’s scientific conclusion or just a histrionic observation? Since when is blatant editorializing appropriate on a graph?

  5. Hugh says:

    Thanks everyone for your comments on this topic. We’d like to clarify that this post is intended to describe the difference between resident and migratory Canada Geese, and to point toward resources for dealing with large flocks of resident geese should this become necessary. This is not a light decision, and, as our post states, it is against the law to harm or kill geese (or any other native bird species) unless the necessary federal, state, and local permits have been obtained.

    Our mission at the Cornell Lab is to provide the best available scientific information about birds and issues related to birds. Our staff is composed of people who care deeply about the environment, about conservation, and about birds. We strive to offer neutral, scientifically valid information about real ecological issues.

    In many areas, the most practical solution is often to live with flocks of Canada Geese. However, in some cases Canada Geese do create health and environmental concerns, and people regularly turn to us for science-based information. We recognize that the problem of how to manage geese is a controversial issue for many communities. The links we’ve provided at the end of the post describe a range of options provided by reputable sources, including U.S. and Canadian government agencies, Cornell University, and the Humane Society.

  6. Laura says:

    Could Cornell’s “All About Birds” team help research the misinformation about birds and aircraft collisions? Of all fatalities involving commercial aircraft worldwide since the 1950s: 50 percent were attributed to pilot error; 22 percent to mechanical failure; 12 percent to weather 9 percent to sabotage; and 7 percent other human error.
    The total of all bird strikes accounts for an accident rate of 0.068 percent — that’s less than 1 percent — with Canada geese as a fraction of this number.
    Additionally, Airports Council International of North America states that a person’s chance of dying as result of an aircraft/wildlife (any wildlife) collision is “one in 750 million.”
    Narrow that equation down to Canada geese alone and we are talking one in a **b**illion!
    [source: http://www.lohud.com/article/20120907/OPINION/309070027/Canada-geese-pose-slim-threat-planes

  7. Thank you for your responses to previous comments Hugh. If this was intended to be an article delineating the difference between “resident” and “migratory” geese as the title suggests, that takeaway was lost as the focus of this article is almost entirely focused on portraying Canada geese as the scourge some people feel they are. Yet, as is pointed out, not everyone feels this way, and not only for emotional reasons but there is a serious lack of data to support many of the asserted conclusions.

    There is only a minimal discussion of the root causes of the “explosion” of Canada geese, and I am not seeing any science which speaks to the claimed effect it is having on other species (especially when put in the perspective of human caused environmental destruction). Although there is some acknowledgment that some people actually *like* geese, or just don’t want them slaughtered as part of some misguided management effort, the tone is clear – geese are not welcome.

    It comes with great disappointment that a school so committed to “conserve and maintain healthy populations of native wild birds” would condone “removal of breeding-age adults” as “one of the few effective ways to reduce population growth…” and conclude that “conflicts will only continue to grow if measures are not taken to curb the runaway growth of these birds.” Does Cornell Lab of Ornithology think they’ll breed beyond biological carrying capacity? At what point will we talk about root causes? Why is there no acknowledgement of the need to curb our own growth? And truly, is co-existing with these animals so impossible? Not for many of us. It’s time to think outside the box.

  8. Kira says:

    Clearly if even an institution that studies birds is expressing a low tolerance capacity for geese, the possibility that this issue may reside with human intolerance should be explored. For example, my town has around 18,000 people. We have a flock of about a dozen geese. Not too long ago, there was an effort to kill the geese because some people complained about droppings near the pond. There was a contentious battle, and the town decided to deter them from the pond and oil the eggs. Now we have a flock of geese that does not procreate, so we took care of that “explosive growth” with one day of egg oiling. Yet, nevertheless, there are still complaints about the geese when this small, beleaguered flock dares appear on a soccer field or grassy area. 18,000 people cannot figure out how to live alongside 12 geese who are not procreating? I think this problem is a human problem and we have an “explosive” growth of entitlement and intolerance.

  9. Lisa says:

    I was thinking that they should hire Geese Police, Geesepeace or Geese Girls. They will get the job done with out killing the birds. We harass them with trained Border Collies, kites, lasers, and kayaks. If you are interested in learning more you can email me . I would be happy to help you out.

  10. Medusa says:

    “Now, they’re overrunning our city parks, golf courses, and farm fields, crowding our national wildlife refuges, and causing hazards at airports.”

    Just replace the words “Canada Geese” in this article & the word “they’re” in the above sentence with the word “Humans.”

    Humans are the worst threat to birds, animals & other living creatures on this planet.

    I’m tired of birds & animals being seen as a threat to *us* when *we* are the threat to them & are encroaching upon THEIR habitat. Please, for the love of Earth & its creatures, don’t reproduce. The world is overcrowded already!

  11. Robert says:

    Paul Curtis, who coordinates Cornell’s Wildlife Damage Management program refuses for over 8 years to endorse Geesebusters, the company that invented the effective and humane “animal scaring device” where dogs and killing geese is unnecessary to control birds. Mr. Curris and others (USDA) are threaten by the effectiveness of this method and refuses to test it against other methods, (dogs, sprays, propane cannons, cut outs,killing,etc.). The “animal scaring device” controls the bird world. See for yourself http://geesebusters.com/oursolution.html , Paul stop wasting grant $$$$. Geesebusters invented the Silver Bullet already. We can whistle train birds (see video)!!

    http://www.geesebusters.com

  12. James Holhoffer says:

    How does everyone feel about the “resident” geese that chill year round and poop everywhere? Lincoln Park, on the lakefront in Chicago is overrun with resident geese. The tourists feed them because that’s the sort of thing tourists do. They roam and graze, and defecate everywhere. Certain paths are unusable do to the amount of waste. I wouldn’t suggest a picnic near the lagoon or anywhere in the grass (The poo blends in with the grass and you will likely sit in some).

    I grew up on the fringes of the city of Chicago and there was a pond at the University nearby. Through the late 80′s and the 90′s I remember the honking sounds of the flying V geese. Interesting to watch, signaling changing seasons. Not a ridiculous amount of poo to deal with anywhere, even on a golf course.

    I’ve noticed the last 10 years or so here in Chicago the geese don’t go anywhere. No natural predators and abundant food. I don’t hate canadian geese, but I’m not fond of these “residents.” I’m used to a healthy respect with the geese, they can be nasty aggressive creatures especially with their young around. I respect that. The residents are sloth like beasts that I sometimes have to tiptoe through their flock, careful to avoid the poo, while they appear to not even acknowledge my presence. You can tell they’re a different bird in someway.

    Without any natural predators these geese own the park, what can be done to best manage these animals?

    • M Leybra says:

      These birds have to be smart to have survived on their own since before modern man. They likely don’t “acknowledge your presence” because they’ve read your comment (or at least your mind.)

    • Kira says:

      Every year the geese who pair up lay one nest full of eggs. The eggs can be coated with corn oil to prevent hatching. Then the population will not grow. Simple. Why people do not do this is beyond me. Google it “Canada goose egg oiling” or “egg addling” there are videos on you tube and the Humane Society and Geese Peace all have the basic instructions, permits, etc. Controlling the goose population nonlethally is a no brainer.

  13. gloria says:

    Well, I’d never noticed the Canadian Goose before, but suddenly saw vast
    numbers of them a few months ago and they have not “migrated.” Don’t get me wrong…I love birds, but this particular type leaves its big craplings all over the place. My local park acreage on the West Coast is loaded with this stuff now and it is all over the sidewalks, too, especially around the small lakes. One thing I specifically noticed recently on a show that featured the sites in Atlanta, Georgia…LOTS of Canadian Geese!!!!! This leads me to believe that their population in North America is out of control. An animal science teacher related to me how disgusted she was with their numbers due to this feature of their presence. Dogs are prohibited from leaving their waste on public property…but due to the abundance of bird feces, who could tell!

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