Geese Gone Wild

By Beacon Staff

I remember when Canada geese weren’t everywhere. They seemed a little rare, in fact, a relic of a time when waterfowl were far more scarce than today.

It may have been a matter of place. I first became fascinated with the birds when I lived in Southern California. There wasn’t much wildlife in the rolling desert hills from which our subdivision had been carved. But not far from the house were the bottomlands of the Santa Ana River. The Santa Ana isn’t much to look at; the river is barely a muddy trickle meandering through thick stands of invasive non-native bamboo. Still, it remains an oasis of wild surrounded by metastasizing suburbia.

The Santa Ana became a favorite hangout once I learned there were Canada geese in ponds maintained for waterfowl at a nature center in the river bottom. I’d head over on winter days in my T-shirt to watch the birds on their evening commute.

They appeared late in the day. From a distance flocks resembled black ribbons lifted above the rooftops by the wind. As they grew closer the twisting ribbons started to flutter with wing beats. Then, as I began to make out individual birds, I’d hear them.

It all seemed rather quaint. In the middle of endless suburban sprawl, wildlife maintained a tenuous hold on existence. It’s what Jeff Goldblum reminded us of in “Jurassic Park.”

Life finds a way.

I didn’t let the fact that those geese were flying back from their feeding grounds on the well-kept lawns of a nearby state prison spoil the narrative. Actually it burnished the tale.

Fast forward a few decades and times have changed. Sure, back then I lived in an urban wildlife desert, so the lofty perch on which I set those jail breaking birds as a talisman for a wildness and rarity was understandable. But the reality is that if the goosapocalypse hadn’t already begun when I was sitting on a bluff overlooking that bamboo-choked river pining for birds, the seeds had definitely been planted.

Today geese are often viewed as a nuisance. They breed faster than rabbits, and are increasingly giving up their migratory ways for year-round residence on golf courses, parks and athletic fields. It’s not so much their presence that’s the problem – though if you’ve ever found yourself on the wrong side of a gander guarding a brood of goslings you might think otherwise. Usually it’s what they leave behind that’s creating conflict.

Geese are attracted to parks because they’re fond of eating grass. And what goes in has to come out, eventually. All that poop has made the birds the bane of ground crews across the continent. In Canada, growing populations of snow geese have decimated the bird’s summer nesting range, over grazing it to dirt. Lesser snow geese now number 5 million birds in North America, a 300 percent increase since the 1970s.

I don’t know anyone who argues that we’re still coming up short in the goose department. Check with the folks who survived US Airways Flight 1549, which in 2009 sucked a flock of geese into its jet engines shortly after takeoff from New York’s LaGuardia Airport, then had to ditch in the Hudson River due to engine failure.

In my mind, hunting is the preferred means for avian birth control. But the Flathead Valley illustrates the challenges to widespread goose population reduction. Most of the best Canada goose habitat is on private land. When the Flathead consisted of larger farms and access wasn’t the flashpoint for conflict it’s become, that didn’t pose such a problem. Today, however, it’s harder to get access to a spot in a choice goose flyway, or the large farms have been subdivided.

Canada geese seem unfazed by the presence of a ranchette on every 10 acres. But don’t count on your neighbors being unfazed if you start blasting birds from a blind just over the fence from their 10 acres of Heaven.

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