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Skeins of geese honking overhead are a sure sign of the coming cold and the passing seasons. But these days, city managers don't wax poetic about the migrating flocks. They save their sentiments for the geese on the ground that stay year-round in public parks, golf courses, beaches and playgrounds. Geese, like deer, are becoming quite used to urban settings.
As noted in a report from Wisconsin's Urban Waterfowl Task Force, some of the "greatest challenges for wildlife management" now reside in our cities, towns, parks and backyards. Geese, in particular, find abundant habitat in urban green spaces and they appreciate the same amenities as humans – quick access to the waterfront and acre upon acre of manicured bluegrass.
The news isn't all bad. City dwellers appreciate the contact with free roaming wild animals, but urban goose flocks can easily become too much of a good thing. The long-lived geese are big, breed prolifically and set up territories they defend aggressively.
And then there's the poop thing. Geese feed on the ready supply of grass and leave behind piles of "goose cigars." Loaded with bacteria, the goose feces can make water unattractive for swimming, and make lawns, parks and beaches distasteful for picnics, walking, golfing and other outdoor recreation.
Not all geese are created equal. The high-flying fall and spring migrant is the Canada goose (Branta canadensis interior). The subspecies that more often stays in Wisconsin and toughs out the cold winter is the giant Canada goose (Branta canadensis maxima). Though there is only one recognized species of Canada goose, there are significant differences among the more than 11 subspecies in North America. The giant Canada often reaches 11-14 pounds in weight. Other races and subspecies may only grow to three pounds. Generally, the farther north in Canada the goose nests, the smaller the subspecies.
Early European settlers in Wisconsin found many of the larger Canada geese using sloughs near the prairies. Wetland drainage, uncontrolled hunting and egg collection extirpated the giant Canada goose from southern Wisconsin in the 1890s and from northern Wisconsin by the 1930s.
The Wisconsin Conservation Department started restoring flocks in the late 1930s with birds from private game breeders. In eastern Wisconsin, young giant Canadas also escaped to the wild from captive flocks. Populations grew slowly for many years. Aside from geese raised by wildlife agencies in waterfowl propagation areas, only 29 goose broods were reported in a total of 24 counties between 1948-64. By 1980, there were flocks in 32 counties and currently, geese breed in all 72 counties. "Resident" goose populations are estimated to be growing 10 percent each year. The 1998 spring waterfowl survey estimated 72,500 giant Canadas reside in Wisconsin. Our aim is to manage a flock that does not exceed 68,000 giant Canada geese each spring.
A resident goose flock of this size would be more manageable if it were evenly distributed on available habitat. Some places that could support geese have none, while birds have crowded densely into some urban ponds, parks and other city green spaces.
In Wisconsin, the highest concentrations of giant Canada geese reside in the southeastern counties, the Green Bay area, Marinette, isolated spots of northeastern and central Wisconsin marshlands, Burnett County and some of the corridor bordering the Mississippi River. The territories geese claim now have golf course supervisors, cemetery operators, airport managers and park crews looking for solutions to keep the flocks in check.
Wildlife professionals working for government, universities and businesses can forward recommendations to control goose populations, but goose management in the city takes skills from many disciplines. First, the city properties geese inhabit were not designed for their use. Runoff catch basins, industrial cooling ponds, and water reservoirs were made to hold and treat water for human uses. Second, inexpensive and lethal methods of controlling geese, like hunting, can keep goose populations in check on the urban fringe, but may not be safe or practical in congested areas surrounded by people. Third, other control techniques can be expensive, and municipalities usually have small budgets to manage animal nuisances.
Starting in September of 1996 the Department of Natural Resources convened an Urban Waterfowl Task Force to discuss unique "city" goose problems and suggest a range of solutions. The Natural Resources Board was briefed on the suggestions from the group. The recommended actions are now being discussed statewide by DNR managers who will recommend which control options should be left in the hands of state officials, community leaders and homeowners who have legitimate reasons to limit resident flocks of geese and ducks. The Natural Resources Board will be asked during 1999 to judge which measures should be included in practical, community guidelines to control resident waterfowl flocks.
The Urban Waterfowl Task Force consisted of local government officials, real estate managers, urban parks departments, animal rights and welfare groups, wildlife educators, golf course managers and hunters as well as representatives from the Wisconsin Lakes Association, Wisconsin Farm Bureau, Audubon Council, Wisconsin Society for Ornithology, Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, Wisconsin Conservation Congress and the Department of Natural Resources. In a series of meetings, the task force heard presentations about waterfowl biology; urban waterfowl problems; laws and government assistance programs regulating waterfowl control; and various management alternatives.
The task force identified the following waterfowl issues that should be addressed in control plans:
While the task force recognized that "at certain times and places, biologically or culturally, too many geese may be present," they failed to agree which situations constituted a "problem" and which techniques were justified to control resident goose flocks.
Fortunately, techniques are available to the homeowner, business or community that feels it is time to curb a growing goose flock. The task force discussed ways to make sites less attractive to geese like "no feeding" ordinances, scare tactics, habitat modifications, goose barriers, repellents and the use of trained dogs. They also discussed the viability of relocating geese, and lethal techniques such as addling eggs, sterilizing geese, hunting birds and euthanizing geese. Before choosing control methods, communities and individuals should check with wildlife officials to determine which techniques require federal, state or local permits.
The task force judged "no feeding ordinances" as a good first step to dissuade goose flocks from an area.
Though people enjoy bringing cracked corn, stale bread and popcorn to feed the birds at public parks, this supplemental food encourages larger numbers of birds to remain in areas that might not otherwise hold them in winter and early spring when fresh grasses are not available. If denied sufficient food, geese will disperse. Further, as birds congregate to eat artificial foods they can more readily pass diseases if some birds are infected.
Geese thrive where water's edge meets an abundant supply of low grasses, so steps to install rock walls and increase the height of shoreline vegetation may create a permanent, effective barrier. Shoreline strips of rocky rubble make it more difficult for geese to come ashore from the water. Dense hedges or a 50- to 100-foot strip of stiff grasses or shrubs at least a yard high will dissuade use by geese. In upland areas and around crops, tall prairie grasses like switchgrass, cordgrass and bluestem provide dense cover and also remain standing after snowfall. Shorelines that are allowed to grow over with tall grasses and shrubs are also less attractive to geese. Landscaping with trees, shrubs and hedges can also make lakeside properties less attractive to geese. Artificial barrier fencing like wooden snow fence or plastic fencing at least 30 inches high with a minimum 3 x 3-inch mesh will also dissuade geese, but check local zoning before erecting such barriers.
Scare techniques are mainly effective early in the spring as adult geese are seeking secure, secluded places to nest. Noisemakers like sirens and natural gas exploders can haze geese, but the loud sounds are equally displeasing to people. Moreover, goose flocks can eventually get used to loud noises that are not accompanied by a real threat.
Mylar helium balloons painted with eye spots can be tethered in fields. They scare geese because they look like large predators. Half-inch strips of flashing mylar tape or ribbon can also persuade geese to move onto other nearby mown grass. Both the rattling sound and the light flashes frighten geese. Such tape is available through garden centers, feed co-ops and mail-order catalogs.
Two-strand portable electric fencing is also effective and economical in small areas. The lower strand is set up eight inches off the ground and the upper strand at about 18 inches. Low impedance energizers powered by batteries or plug-in outlets deliver short electrical bursts once a second that geese learn to avoid.
Goose repellents will not poison geese (which is illegal) but the odor and taste lead the birds to seek greener pastures elsewhere if other nearby grazing areas are available. Only one repellent is registered for use on turf and lawns (ReJex-iTŪ) and it has to be carefully sprayed at a set concentration to avoid burning out the lawn.
Most of the above techniques are only practical and affordable in protecting a small parcel of land from goose depredation. When the method is used consistently. Moreover, their effectiveness varies and the best practice is to combine several methods to control geese. Managers of city parks and golf courses either learn to live with geese or try other solutions. In some communities, golf course managers contract with dog services to patrol the grounds and scare away flocking geese. Border collies, traditionally used to herd sheep, have been trained to chase geese from greens and fairways. This sort of goose hazing is especially effective if it is started in the early spring before the birds nest.
Remember that most control techniques require permits and prior approval. Geese that can be dissuaded from nesting in one area may relocate elsewhere. On the other hand, goose families that already have established a firm territory will defend it and are much more difficult to haze from a site.
Geese can also be captured and moved to new territories. Relocation was widely used in the United States to restore goose populations to their original breeding ranges and to new locations with suitable habitat. Translocation meets with mixed success. Juvenile birds will adapt to their new homes; adult birds almost always return to their "home" territories near the capture sites. In Wisconsin, 2,100 giant Canada geese were successfully relocated from Brown County, mainly since 1982. Another 1,250 birds were moved from southeastern counties to other state locations.
The days of moving large flocks are largely over because goose populations are now well established in most of the state where habitat allows them to thrive. Secondly, relocating juvenile geese to public lands gave the impression the birds were being "stocked" for hunting purposes rather than moved to establish new populations.
Similarly, opportunities to relocate geese to other areas of the country are drying up as giant Canada goose populations continue to grow. Three hundred Wisconsin birds were sent to Oklahoma in 1982 and 3,562 geese were sent to Kansas between 1983-1993 to start new flocks. No geese have been relocated out of state during the last five years.
Relocation is also expensive, averaging $10 per bird, according to Minnesota DNR estimates. Trapped geese have to be captured, inspected, fed and transported to new range. Communities that want to remove geese pay the expenses.
Several animals, notably fox, coyotes, raccoons and skunks will prey on goose eggs, but these species are neither plentiful nor more desirable than geese in the urban environment.
Removing or breaking eggs merely causes geese to nest again, so birds have to be fooled into remaining on a nest that will not produce hatchlings. Dummy eggs made of plaster or wood can be substituted for the natural eggs. Freshly laid eggs can be addled by shaking them vigorously, pricking the end with a sharp instrument or by coating the egg with an oily spray. Addled eggs need to be returned to the nest to allow the birds to continue incubating for at least three weeks. Thereafter, when the nest and eggs are removed from the breeding area, further clutches are unlikely. Task Force members noted that egg addling is likely to be more acceptable to the human public than killing geese, but the practice would still be controversial. Anyone proposing to addle or replace eggs must first procure a federal permit to do so.
Hunting is also an effective way to control large goose flocks. Obviously, hunting would be too dangerous in neighborhoods or urban centers. Some golf courses and open fields can offer limited hunting during daylight hours when the course is closed.
Since 1990 a special goose hunt in eastern Wisconsin in early September has allowed liberal harvest of Canada geese on the urban fringe. Migratory waterfowl don't fly through Wisconsin until later in the fall, so this early season targets resident goose flocks. DNR Migratory Game Bird Biologist Jon Bergquist told the task force this early hunt has helped control urban goose problems and slow goose population growth while providing additional outdoor recreation. This special season and the normal fall goose-hunting seasons were the only hunting options endorsed by the task force.
Some communities in other states have experimented in capturing and surgically sterilizing adult ganders. Capturing and neutering the males is expensive (more than $100 per bird) and takes about 15 minutes. The task force concluded that "surgical sterilization is not a viable technique for widespread use in urban waterfowl control." Oral contraceptives to inhibit goose reproduction are not available at this time.
A final option – rounding up geese for slaughter at processing plants and packaging the meat for food pantries – was viewed as a solution of last resort by the task force. Distributing goose meat to food kitchens raised concerns about liability for potential contamination and food safety. Studies by DNR Wildlife Pathologist Kathy Patnode indicate toxicants that accumulate in geese do not reach a level that would threaten human health. The task force recommended that before harvested geese were distributed to food pantries, approval from the Food and Drug Administration or meat inspection by a suitable local agency would be advisable to minimize health risks to consumers.
Communities have a range of options to manage goose flocks in town. Seeing waterfowl near homes and in public places is enjoyable and calming. It provides contact with a wild world in a decidedly tame, safe setting. How and when a goose population becomes a goose problem is often more of an aesthetic issue than a health or safety concern. Ultimately, people form the character of their neighborhoods and will define the point where living in harmony with wildlife is getting too close for comfort.
Copies of the Urban Waterfowl Task Force report are available for $7 from:
Make checks payable to Wisconsin DNR.
David L. Sperling edits Wisconsin Natural Resources.