For the Birds Radio Program: Canada Goose Overpopulation in Cities

Original Air Date: Aug. 16, 1999 (estimated date)

Burgeoning numbers of urban geese are a human-caused problem.

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When I started birding, a handful of Canada Geese lived in a handful of city parks and beaches in urban America. Now, a quarter of a century later, that handful of geese has mushroomed into huge flocks sprouted up in every city. In the Mississippi Flyway alone, the 1998 spring Canada Goose population exceeded 1.1 million birds, an increase of 21 percent in just one year.

By nature, Canada Goose are wild and wary—the antithesis of civilized. But over the generations since Europeans arrived, humans invaded more and more of their wilderness retreats to butcher them. Government put no limits at all on the first hunters, who brought the fairly non-migratory race of Giant Canada Geese to the brink of extinction and seriously reduced the other races as well. These intelligent birds who learn their migration route from their parents slowly learned to adapt their migratory traditions as they figured out that the one place they are safe from humans is, ironically, right in the backyard of these same humans.

Little by little, individuals and pairs of geese learned that people give you handouts in town and cities and, better still, nobody shoots at you. They adapted to and learned to live with the enemy. At first people found these urban geese charming, but they increased and multiplied as if following a biblical mandate, and suddenly people found them more annoying than charming.

So now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has announced that it’s trying to find new ways to control and manage these urban populations. The primary way people decrease any population of wildlife is by killing them, so for decades the Service has “managed” goose numbers by increasing the bag limit and the number of open hunting days. Of course, that approach has backfired because the intelligent geese figured out that they’re safe where ordinances prohibit discharging firearms. Now the Service is overwhelmed with requests from cities to allow them to reduce the goose numbers. In 1994, the Midwest region issued 149 permits authorizing trapping and relocation, egg and nest destruction, and taking of adults. In 1998, that number rose to 225 permits, and the number is increasing in similar fashion in all the regions of the country.

This summer the Service has handed over to states the opportunity to control geese without first getting approval from the federal agency. In their official press release, the Fish and Wildlife Service says that potential options for states include non-lethal methods such as managing urban habitat to make it less attractive to geese, harassment, trapping and relocation of birds and “more direct population stabilization and reduction programs”—that is, killing the geese outright. To me, the whole issue is overwhelmingly sad and ironic—we’ve stolen the geese’s wildness by over-harvesting to the point where virtually the entire species has changed its life history to survive, and now after they’ve accommodated to us and become more like us than we’d care to admit, their burgeoning urban numbers have become a serious health threat to both humans and geese. Meanwhile, the human population soars to new heights, unabated and unregulated.