Tuck the goose under your arm like you're carrying a football.
Collecting Canada goose data depends on volunteer determination.
Story by Richard G. Billings Jr.
HORICON – Wildlife Biologist Brenda Kelly is running. Meanwhile, the rest of the group that has gathered on this humid and rainy morning disperses into a Dodge County field along Highway 33. Why is Kelly running so frantically? The answer is a fast-paced flurry of feathers. There's a Canada goose running down the fence line like its life depends on it.
Now it makes sense. Kelly is trying to keep the runaway goose from getting to a hole in the fence and escaping capture.
It's June. Goose banding season is underway.
The day begins with the goose banding group gathering at a pale blue Department of Natural Resources shed near Horicon Marsh in Horicon. This is a diverse bunch of goose chasers comprised of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) staff, DNR technicians and biologists, a couple of DNR interns and, most importantly, citizen volunteers of all ages. Almost half the group is kids or teenagers.
Every year the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, USFWS and other agencies in other states, place leg bands on a variety of birds. Migratory game birds like ducks, geese and doves are some of the most commonly banded birds.
Why band the Canada goose (Branta canadensis)? The primary reasons for banding migratory game birds (birds that are hunted) is to determine the rate of hunting, harvest and annual survival rate for different bird species and populations within a species. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the USFWS use this information to set hunting seasons and daily harvest limits. The agencies also use information from leg band returns to determine migratory bird patterns.
Each band has a unique number that identifies the individual bird. When someone finds a band on a harvested bird, the Department of Natural Resources asks them to call an operator who will ask a few simple questions like the date and location where the bird was harvested. The hunter then receives a certificate in the mail containing information on the banded bird. The proportion that are harvested and reported compared to the total that were banded provides a rate of harvest.
For Canada geese, the data obtained from band returns is very useful to wildlife managers. In Wisconsin, we have two primary populations of Canada geese that fill the skies each fall. One is called the Mississippi Valley Population (MVP) that nests along the Hudson Bay coast in northern Ontario. The nesting conditions vary significantly year to year because of sometimes harsh weather. Some years these geese produce many goslings and other years few survive to flight stage. For this reason, wildlife managers want to maintain a relatively low rate of harvest for this population.
The other population is made up of the giant Canada goose that nests in Wisconsin and adjacent states. This population has steadily increased for the last 20 years to a level where some Wisconsin residents would like to see the population controlled. Wildlife managers want to increase the harvest of locally nesting Canada geese. Through the banding return data managers can track the harvest level to see if management goals are being achieved. They then adjust hunting season dates and daily bag limits based on the information collected from band returns.
According to Kent Van Horn, the DNR's migratory game bird ecologist, the harvest rate of the local giant population is greater than 15 percent, while the MVP geese are being harvested at a rate of 8 to 10 percent, which means we are achieving our management goals in Wisconsin. We also know from band return data that the fall hunting harvest is about 50:50 between the two populations.
Nationally, 3.1 million leg bands have been reported, a pretty small number considering that since 1904 about 58 million birds have been banded in North America and these numbers represent hundreds of different species of birds. On this day the goal is to band around 200 geese.
That might not seem like a lot, but this is just one of several banding sites.
"This year we are going to band approximately 4,000 geese at various sites around the state," Van Horn says.
Since Canada geese are migratory birds, banding quotas are established for the different populations and different states. Van Horn works with other states and provinces to develop these quotas and then assigns portions of the quota to local wildlife managers, like Brenda Kelly, so banding efforts are well distributed around the state.
The Horicon banding sets the stage. Horicon Marsh is internationally known as a major migratory stopover that provides habitat for endangered species and is a critical rest stop for thousands of migrating ducks and Canada geese. The spectacle of the annual migrations attracts amateur birders and professional ornithologists from Wisconsin and throughout the Midwest. The marsh is recognized as a Wetland of International Importance and ranks high on the lists of important global and state bird areas.
The USFWS manages the northern two-thirds of Horicon Marsh as the Horicon National Wildlife Refuge. The southern third of the marsh is managed by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources as the Horicon Marsh State Wildlife Area.
Wily and wary
Capturing and banding geese isn't simple. You need a strategy and you have to act fast. Geese that have been caught before remember when they were first captured. Now, as adults, they may be leaders within the flock. That's why Kelly is running quickly toward the fence. That lead goose is intent – his eyes on the prize – to show an escape route to the other geese! If you don't beat the leader to the hole in the fence, you've got problems.
Kelly has led many goose captures and is a skillful instructor when it comes to understanding the wily ways of geese. For the first capture of this banding season at Horicon Marsh, Kelly begins by showing the group the leg bands. She then picks up a short piece of rubber hose with a flap of duct tape on each end to demonstrate the leg banding procedure. The hose simulates a goose's leg.
She explains that as a leg bander, you must be careful when using pliers to squeeze the band onto the leg because sharp edges left on the band may injure the bird. For the same reason, bands cannot overlap on themselves or they may loosen and fall off, injuring the goose.
"You have to remember while you practice with the hose that a goose's leg doesn't bend the same way the hose can," Kelly says as she bends the hose every which way. "While this is good practice for the banding procedure, a goose will be trying to move while you're working with it."
Next, the banders pass around the hose, pliers and test bands. The test bands look like the real bands used on the geese but they are made of a softer metal. They are commemorative bands handed out to everyone who participates in the event.
"Do not take any of these bands for use on the geese. They do not have the correct information on them," Kelly instructs. Official bands have stamped on them an identification number, the area banded and the number to call after the harvest.
Ready, set, run
After leg banding practice, Kelly uses a Horicon Marsh map to orient everyone. We launch two canoes into a nearby pond and a small group of banders heads out in front to cut off the main escape routes for the geese.
One group deploys fence panels making a portable cage. If all goes well, we will soon experience our first capture of the day.
It turns out that most geese cannot fly at this time of the year and that is why we are capturing and banding them now. The geese are molting and their primary flight feathers are being replaced with new ones. Not all geese molt at the same time and during the course of the day we do encounter a couple geese that can fly.
Once the fencing is in place, we sit and wait. The rain starts again so the entire group moves into the DNR shed for protection from the weather. The whole operation is in trouble because of the rain. The geese have water repellent built into their feathers. Handling them under wet conditions can defeat that system making them susceptible to hypothermia. If the rain intensifies or doesn't let up, we are going to have to do the captures another day.
But Mother Nature decides to play along. The rain stops. We begin our first capture.
"Now when you see the geese, in order to get them to go where we want, you have to appear as big as you can," Kelly advises. "I need a volunteer to show us what that looks like. How about you young man?"
Kelly signals to a young boy. With a little chiding and a push from behind, the boy joins Kelly and stands with his arms stretched out as far as he can while trying to hide his bashfulness. No goose is getting past this guy.
A truck carrying the most experienced banders drives away quietly to set up the corral. Two DNR technicians with a truck and two canoes slip quietly over the hill and down the path to the pond. After waiting a few minutes to allow the first two groups to get into position, Kelly launches the mission.
"SSSShhhhhhh," Kelly warns. "We have to be quiet or they will hear us and then we'll have to come back later and try again."
As we come up over the hill, the capture site is visible and the two canoeists are at the far end of the pond away from where the geese are. We quietly walk down the path and around the side of the pond. That's where we spread out in order to keep any geese that get into the pond from escaping into the marsh. They are surrounded. It seems to happen all at once. We form a human funnel. The canoes quickly move to the other end of the pond next to some cattails. Several volunteers are monitoring the fencing panels. Before we know it, the geese are in the corral.
It's quite a sight for anyone who has not experienced the goose banding process. Geese that had been caught before are hissing at us and are gathered as a gaggle in the middle of the corral.
"I need one person who has banded before to get into the corral with me," Kelly says. Then she demonstrates how to properly capture and handle geese.
Once you are inside the corral, pick a goose and pull it toward you. Squat down over the goose while holding its wings down. Then, with the goose pinned between your legs, take its head and put it under one wing. If you hold it that way for a moment or two the goose will settle down and handling will be a lot less stressful for both you and the goose. Then, pick up the goose and tuck it under your arm like you are carrying a football.
The next step is to hand the goose off to someone on the outside of the corral, although the goose's bottom should be pointing out away from you and facing everyone else. This is a dangerous time for everyone. The goose poop could fly.
Now it's the banders who handle the geese. They get to sit on chairs to do their part. Hold the goose tucked under your arm, upside down, head first between your legs. Keep the head tucked under a wing and use your legs to hold the goose, freeing up your hands to work.
Identify if the bird has a leg band. If it does, it is an adult. An adult with a band is a "recapture."
Now, without getting into too much detail, you need to sex the bird to figure out if the bird is male or female. Read the band number to record-keepers. If you have a juvenile bird, sex it and report to record-keepers. They record the band number, age and sex of the bird then they toss you a band. Once a good clean band is on the goose's leg, the bird is handed off for release.
As we finish emptying the corral, Kelly reiterates that the banding operation would not be as successful without volunteers. What we've accomplished with 40 to 50 people couldn't be done by staff alone. Kelly thanks everyone again for their efforts and care for the environment.
The Department of Natural Resources offers opportunities to experience the outdoors in unique ways. Whether you're goose banding, pulling garlic mustard, deer collaring or electrofishing, the DNR has your next unique opportunity waiting.
Visit Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and search for volunteer opportunities. Get out there! Make a new memory! Go on a wild goose chase.
Richard G. Billings Jr. is an editorial intern with Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.