Pond starling

Not everyone loves, or appreciates, Canada Geese

SOUTH NEWFANE — My column last month was about the family life of the Canada goose. Some of the column referred to the friendly relationship that many people have toward these geese, bordering on the pet-like. This month is the flip side on the Canada goose, which used to be the forerunner of winter and the harbinger or spring.

No more.

Edward Forbush in “A Natural History of American Birds” (1955), described the reaction of people to the “flying wedge” of Canada geese which “brings to all who see or hear the promise of another spring. The farmer stops his team to gaze; the blacksmith leaves his forge to listen as that far-carrying clamor falls upon the ear; children leave their play and eagerly point to the sky where the feathered denizens of the northern wilderness press steadily on toward the pole, babbling of the coming of spring... Coming after the long, cold winter, not even the first call of the bluebird so stirs the blood of the listener.”

Forbush wrote at a time when most Canada geese still migrated to and from their breeding grounds, and when those breeding grounds were mostly north of our border with Canada. He described it as “a distinctly American bird.”

Since then, a combination of factors has contributed to Canada geese becoming so ubiquitous that some birders now refer to them as “pond starlings,” an unflattering comparison to the European starling, which is an introduced species whose proliferation, habits, and characteristics make it a pest bordering on a pestilence.

In the case of the Canada goose, native intelligence and adaptability have combined with human ineptitude to create a population explosion and a goose-human conflict.

Habitat loss and over-hunting dropped the Canada goose population to a low point in the 1920s and 1930s. Over a period of years, a variety of steps were taken to create the situation we have today.

Unlike with many species, migration among Canada geese is a learned, not inherited, trait. Some species of shore birds, for example, hatch their young, and then the adults head south. Some time later, the first-year birds make their own way to the same wintering grounds to which their parents flew. Clearly, migration for these birds is encoded in their genes.

That's not the case with the Canada goose. These birds “learn” to migrate, and when the opportunity presents itself, they “relearn” their migration. Pennsylvania-based naturalist and author Scott Weidensaul describes in his Pulitzer Prize-nominated “Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere With Migratory Birds” (North Point Press, 1999) how “wildlife management” affected geese migration:

“Canada geese from the central Arctic always wintered along the lower Mississippi, but in 1927 the State of Illinois converted thousands of acres of rich bottomland into a waterfowl refuge; within a few years, half of the geese on the central flyway were stopping there instead of continuing south. Then in 1941, the federal government opened the enormous Horicon National Wildlife Refuge even farther north, in Wisconsin, employing the same mix of ponds, lakes, and crops to shortstop the fickle geese that so recently had favored Illinois. The original migration to Louisiana and Arkansas, meanwhile, had dried up...”

Simply put, with food available, the geese didn't need to make the long, arduous flight - and stayed put.

But the demotion of the Canada goose to “pond starling” status really began in the 1960s and '70s. The intent was to restore the species to wildlife refuges and establish it in parks. Wing-clipped geese were introduced for this purpose. The effort succeeded beyond expectations, but the new populations of geese were non-migratory. The original wing-clipped birds couldn't migrate; their offspring and succeeding generations never learned to migrate, and the adaptability of the species precluded the need to migrate.

In Pennsylvania, for example, there were historically no breeding Canada geese. During the 1990s, the permanent, non-migratory population of Canada geese in that state grew to more than 200,000.

Again, Weidensaul: “What had started as small, picturesque flocks in widely scattered locations became larger, messier, and more widespread, until by the 1990s it was hard to find a body of water without geese. The resident population in the East ... has been growing at the light-speed rate of 17 percent a year since the late 1980s.”

Meanwhile, the number of breeding pairs in the Atlantic population in northern Quebec plummeted, causing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to close fall Canada goose hunting in an effort to preserve the northern breeding population.

This led to economic repercussions and disabled efforts aimed at controlling the non-migratory goose population.

The explosion of the Canada goose population also has a negative effect on other waterfowl species. Their size and aggression drives away other nesting ducks. A beaver pond not far from my home has had no nesting wood ducks or mallards. Canada geese have laid claim to the pond.

Thirty-five years ago, at the time of the first Vermont Breeding Bird Atlas, the Canada goose was present in only eight priority blocks in the entire state: nearly all of those were in the Champlain lowlands.

During the second VBBA, 2003-2007, the Canada goose was present in 136 priority blocks, a 17-fold increase.

In the first atlas, the Canada goose was not present anywhere in Windham County, not even as a possible breeding species. In the second atlas, it was present in nearly every survey block in Windham County, and was one of the first species to be confirmed as breeding in most of those survey blocks.

The Putney Mountain Hawk Watch often sees the “V” formation of geese overhead, occasionally with snow geese mixed in. These are probably birds from the Canadian North who are migrating south for the winter. On the other hand, most of the several-hundred Canada geese typically counted during Christmas Bird Count in the Brattleboro area are probably non-migratory birds. They haven't learned to migrate, and when the water is open and the ground is snow-free, they find food in abundance.

Canada geese, like the European starling, are not indicators of good birding. Rather, they're reminders of human-induced environmental havoc.

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