Canada Geese


(This 932nd Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on February 1, 2009.)



A Canada Goose on the Ice

in Amherst's Margaret Louise Park


We're hearing a great deal nowadays about birds causing airplane accidents. The same concern was raised in 1960 when a more serious accident took place in Boston. How many recall today that episode when a jet hit a bird flock first reported as rare pine grosbeaks but later identified as starlings? That plane crashed wing-first into Boston Harbor and 62 people were killed.


We're learning a great deal now about the preventive measures taken at airports: local bird colonies dispersed, guns and cannons fired to scare them, trained dogs and peregrine falcons employed as chasers. But, as usual, our interest will soon wane, just as it did shortly after that 1960 crash. That is just as well as thankfully such episodes are rare and our aircraft industry doesn't need additional problems at this time.


Instead of reviewing the difficulties with birds that add to the worries of airplane pilots and passengers, in this column I write about the villain of the recent near-disaster, those Canada geese.


It is hard to realize today that Canada geese were rare birds seventy years ago. Evidence of this is provided by the Buffalo Ornithological Society's May censuses. About a hundred society members take the field on one day in each May to count birds on the Niagara Frontier, covering eight western New York counties and nearby Canada as far west as Grimsby.


In the 1930s no Canada geese at all were found in May and in the 1940s the counts averaged only six. Compare that with the 2000 count when 4271 were recorded. (More geese were reported on the corresponding April counts, but those were migrants, not the resident birds that constitute our major problem.)


As a young birder in the 1940s and 1950s, I joined groups that traveled from Rochester to visit the Oak Orchard Swamps on our annual Easter goose trip. There we were thrilled to see increasing numbers of those Canada geese stopping over on their migrations to the far north. Those numbers peaked in the 1960s and have declined ever since.


In the early 1940s Jack Miner was one of my personal ornithological heroes along with the Craighead brothers and Roger Tory Peterson. Miner was a Canadian birder who had founded in 1904 what came to be known as the Jack Miner Bird Sanctuary in Kingsville, Ontario near Windsor. There he raised and released those rare Canada geese and banded them as well. Miner's bands included, together with the usual instructions to report where the bird was found, Bible verses like: "Have faith in God" Mark 11:22; and "Let us consider one another" Hebrews 10:24. I suspect that some of those Bible verses provided the grace before the dinners of successful goose hunters.


This unlettered man caught the good will of a continent and books were written about him. To many and especially to waterfowl hunters, he was saving a species. As an indication of his popularity: shortly before Miner died in 1944, several United States newspapers rated him the fifth best known man on the continent after Ford, Edison, Lindbergh and Rickenbacker.


With our current situation, it is no wonder that Miner's popularity waned. How did this rare bird become the too common resident not only of our marshes but of our corporate lawns and golf courses, forcing us to tiptoe across lawns to avoid their slimy guano and to drive golf balls into herds of them? More important, how did it become the scourge of those marshes that it is today, causing declines in the populations not only of birds like moorhens and rails but of muskrats as well.


Many observers believe that it was a change in diet that not only supported their population increase but also led to their ability to overwinter in the north. They switched from slimy eelgrass to corn, from a low value diet to one of the highest there is.


There were other factors as well. Poor management has certainly been one of them. Game managers identified at least eight Canada goose subspecies and sought to protect each one. This meant hunting season restrictions to guard their smaller migrating populations. And, of course, with ever fewer hunters even that population control has been reduced still further.


So we are left with another seemingly unsolvable problem. Wouldn't it be great if we could collect, prepare and serve those resident geese in our food kitchens?-- Gerry Rising