Culling Geese


(This 1011th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on August 8, 2010.)



The Handsome Culprit



It was as though someone needed to liven up the summer doldrums for birders.


An article with the headline, "State Plans to Eliminate 170,000 Canada Geese", appeared on the New York Times website on July 23. And Isolde Raftery's lead read, "ItÕs a doomsday plan for New York's geese."


The article quoted an unnamed "high level official" at the United States Department of Agriculture about representatives of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation and the National Park Service together with members of Mayor Bloomberg's staff agreeing on a plan that included this description:


"The captured geese are placed alive in commercial turkey crates. The geese would be euthanized with methods approved by the American Veterinary Medical Association. Euthanized geese would be buried."


The response was predictable. Birding internet exchanges out-blistered even this summer's heat wave.


Never mind that News fact checkers and reporter Tom Precious found the Times article highly misleading. And never mind New York State Environmental Protection Agency spokesman Bryan Swift's response that "there are absolutely no plans by DEC or others to capture, euthanize and bury 170,000 resident geese."


Swift's statement went on to note, however, that there is indeed a problem. In 1999 the number of resident (non-migratory) geese in New York was estimated at 137,000 birds; in 2005 that population had already grown to 161,000. And Raftery's sources indicated that number is now 250,000. Those counts contrast with the DEC's indication that a more reasonable number of state geese would be 85,000.


Whether or not that blue-ribbon group ever did meet, the issue of culling geese has been raised and the public is responding predictably.


To many of us the Canada goose is now up there with the white-tailed deer among the untouchables. She is the new Candi to the deer's Bambi.


Candi is indeed an attractive bird. She looks just like her boyfriends, with their long slim black necks and heads clearly marked by those distinctive white cheeks, all this atop soft gray bodies. And even the tame local geese fly around in those V-shaped echelons, honking cadence to their sisters and brothers.


Aren't they just the sweetest things?


Well no, as a matter of fact. They aren't, and not just to the park, corporate lawn and golf course managers who have to deal with their slimy poop and their penchant for jabbing their bills into the most delicate grasses.


I join those who worry about the decline of our marsh birds, our rails, moorhens, bitterns and even ducks, and I believe that Canada geese and their partners in crime, the less common swans, are up front among our aggressive marshland villains.


Lynn Braband of Rochester has spoken to this issue: "Human health and safety issues, especially near airports, are undoubtedly among the most acute concerns. Ecological impacts are more subtle. When I go into Taylor Marsh in April and see paired geese on what seems like every hummock, I have to wonder about the effects on the rest of the marshÕs flora and fauna."


I know the response to my concerns from the Candi and Bambi lovers: We humans are the real culprits. We introduced and fed these exemplars of wildlife; therefore, we should butt out.


I have no problem with the first part of that statement: we have indeed done violence to the natural world. But I question whether the therefore clause should follow.


Consider in this regard a parallel problem. A very attractive blue-green beetle, the emerald ash borer, is going to wipe out all - not just some, all - of our ash trees, just as the beetles carrying Dutch elm disease denuded our neighborhoods of lovely elms several decades ago. The loss of those ashes is going to have a major effect not only on our forests but also on our many park and street trees.


Do I hear anyone arguing that we should not seek ways to kill those lovely little emerald ash borers? No, indeed, that's okay.


In fact, many scientists are seeking such controls, but they tell me that their work will only protect the next generation of ashes.


I consider Candi and Bambi just as bad. Handsome though they are, we should control their numbers as well.-- Gerry Rising