The never-been-to-Canada goose problem

Amy Fewell

While their characteristic flying-wedge formation is an iconic image of seasonal waterfowl migrations, not all Canada geese make those semi-annual trips to and from northern Canada.

Many of them breed, nest and feed in the same place, year ’round – and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) estimates that about 155,000 of these “resident Canada geese” now call Virginia home.

Of course, not every resident human is excited about another out-of-town species making itself at home in Rappahannock County.

Longtime Harris Hollow resident Ben Jones, for example, known to most of the nation as Cooter from the “Dukes of Hazzard” TV series, said he noticed a lot more geese sticking around the county this winter. One early morning last month, he even counted 34 Canada geese on his half-acre pond.

“One or two geese are beautiful animals; it’s neat to see them in flight, especially as they head south for the winter or north for the summer,” Jones said. “But after a point, with what they do to your property and with them deciding there’s no point in leaving, we’re all gonna be slippin’ in goose poop before long.”

Canada geese will spend up to 12 hours a day feeding to take in the nutrition that they need, according to Ducks Unlimited Canada. They usually graze on grasses, roots, leaves and other plant materials, but also on waste crops and grain. Needless to say, those resources aren’t lacking here in the county.

As their name implies, resident geese spend most of the year near their breeding areas. The first local-nesting or “resident” geese were birds released by private individuals in the early 1900s, according to the Atlantic Flyaway Resident Canada Goose Management Plan prepared by the Canada Goose Committee and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 1999.

“When use of live decoys for hunting was prohibited in 1935, captive flocks of domesticated or semi-domesticated geese were numerous (estimated at more than 15,000 birds), and many were liberated in parks or allowed to wander at large,” the document stated. From the 1950s through the 1980s, wildlife agencies in many northeastern states were actively involved in relocation and stocking programs to establish resident populations, primarily in rural areas. These programs were highly successful – too successful even – so most were discontinued by 1990.

Rappahannock resident and naturalist Bruce Jones (no relation to Ben) thinks that the resident goose “problem” in Virginia is partly the result of as many as 80,000 ponds being constructed in the state in the late 1940s for both farming and recreation. Add to that the clipping of some goose wings – conditioning the fowl to brave the winters in Virginia rather than flying farther south for the winter – and, Jones said, it’s hard to blame a goose for sticking around all year.

Rosalie Lysaght, Blue Rock Inn restaurant and pub manager, said this year the estimated 50 Canada geese that frequent the pond at Blue Rock each year stayed for the whole winter.

“The pond never froze over this winter, so they really haven’t had any reason to leave,” Lysaght said, adding that the geese are known to graze right up to the edge of the patio at the restaurant.  

According to VDGIF waterfowl population totals in August 2011, the resident Canada goose population increased significantly during the 1980s and early 1990s (there were about 115,000 resident geese here in 1993). That population peaked at an estimated 265,000 resident geese in Virginia in 1998, and that number has since been steadily reduced by management programs.

Though he’s the VDGIF migratory waterfowl expert, Gary Costanzo is also charged with managing populations of non-migratory geese.

Amy Fewell

“And there’s a number of ways to do that,” Constanzo said. “We have various hunting seasons that we use specifically to try and reduce that resident population. And then there’s other tools, like permits to destroy nests and eggs, and agricultural depredation permits that we grant to farmers to destroy or remove geese that are causing problems.”

Washington Mayor John Fox Sullivan and his wife, Beverly, have noted that every year about 15 or 20 geese spend the winter in town, dividing their time among several nearby ponds.

“They come from pond to pond to pond in the area: our pond, the Avon Hall pond, the Whippoorwill pond and God knows what other ponds they go to,” John Sullivan said. “They look great when they’re floating around, but what doesn’t look great is what they leave on the ground.”

“There are a lot of conflicts with these resident geese, just because there are so many,” Costanzo said, noting that the VDGIF has been effective at reducing the resident goose population by about 100,000 since 2000. “And they actually thrive in human habitats; they like nice green lawns and they like golf courses and they like farms. They’re real accustomed to people, so there’s a lot of conflicts with human populations, in terms of where they roam and the crops they eat.”

According to research published by USDA wildlife services, resident Canada geese have negatively impacted property and agricultural resources throughout the eastern United States. High densities of goose feces reduce the aesthetic value and recreational use of parks, beaches, golf courses, athletic fields and residential lawns, and are often perceived as health hazards.

Part of USDA staff wildlife biologist Jeff Rumbaugh’s job is to assist folks with resident Canada goose damage situations, safety concerns with airports, droppings or turf damage in residential areas. (It was a flock of geese hitting a jet engine during takeoff that brought down the commercial plane that was miraculously crash-landed in the Hudson River in January 2009). Also, the USDA accepts applications for depredation orders – kill permits allowing the controlled lethal removal of geese – from landowners and forwards them to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), which has the authority to issue such permits..

“A flock of geese can do quite a bit of damage, not only to pasture and lawns, but in crops, they can mow down the young sprouts of grain or corn early in the growing season,” Rumbaugh said, noting that the USDA strongly supports the hunting seasons for geese, especially the Sept. 1-25 resident goose hunting season (migrant geese appear in Virginia around Sept. 25 every year).

“Hunting is the quickest, most successful way to reduce the population – conditioning these geese to know this isn’t a safe place to be,” Rumbaugh said. “Gunshots scare them. Hunters will even tell you that a pond that was filled with geese the first few days of the season will be deserted because the geese learn quickly.”

But then there’s no hunting season during the early growing season when crops are at the most risk, Rumbaugh said, adding that the USFWS can issue one-year depredation orders to landowners to deal with geese during the offseason. If permitted, a percentage of geese can be shot throughout the year. The number of geese killed must be recorded, and the geese cannot be kept for human consumption; the birds must either be buried or burned.

The USFWS also supports two methods of nest destruction – oiling and addling – for dealing with goose eggs to prevent them from hatching. Oiling involves sprinkling corn oil on top of the eggs in a nest, which kills the embryo and prevents the egg from hatching; addling the egg means shaking it to kill the embryo within and placing it back within the nest. Those methods effectively limit the population growth but don’t control current populations of adult geese, Rumbaugh said.

In 2009, the VDGIF adopted the use of agricultural depredation orders, which allow commercial farmers that sustain goose damage to shoot an unlimited number of geese between May 1 and Aug. 31; these geese must be buried or burned, and aren’t allowed to be eaten.

Ben Jones was appalled by the recommended lethal methods promoted by these government agencies – other than classic goose hunting with a shotgun, which he said is an artform – most apalled by the concept of nest and egg destruction and the killing of geese without the possibility of eating the meat.

“That doesn’t make any sense, particularly if there’re hungry people about,” Jones said. “If they’re pests and you kill ‘em then why not prepare ’em for food? That’s how this country existed for actually thousands of years; the Manahoacs that lived here long before us I’m sure had all sorts of ways to cook up a goose, or any other number of critters that were around here. So to me, that is a prime example of bureacratic thinking; only a government memo could come up with that one.”

Rumbaugh and Costanzo agree that the most effective non-lethal approach to dealing with resident geese is harassment – a lot of noise. They recommend a horn on a vehicle, airhorns, gunshots – anything loud, obnoxious or irritating. They said that dogs are very good at harassing geese, and also suggested that with smaller ponds, modifying the habitat by creating a barrier around the edge of the pond.

“Geese like to land on the water and then walk up to grazing areas,” Rumbaugh said. “Two or three strands of wire or a drift fence should work. Barriers are most effective when the geese have young, because when goslings can’t cross over the barrier to get to dry land, the geese aren’t going to just leave them behind. On a small pond, you could stretch strands of wire over top in a grid pattern so they can’t land.”

Jones said that since he and his wife Alma recently adopted a half-labrador dog named Bessie, who never tires from chasing geese, the unwanted resident geese have steered clear of their pond these last few weeks.

“She’ll see those geese a hundred yards away and just make a bee line, and that scatters ’em,” Jones said. “But they figured her out, and when they’re out all around the pond grazing, they see her and they jump in the pond and start swimming. Well, she will take a leap off the bank right into the middle of that, and then they all go flying off, leaving her in the pond. So it’s great fun to watch, but once it passes eight or 10 geese, I started thinking, ‘Hmmm, I wonder how those suckers would taste.’ ”

1 Comment

  1. Not all programmes work well in the long term. Cutting the wings of the geese to keep them in one place sounds good, but look where it’s ended up.

    Apparently there is a machine which sucks up goose poop – from there it could go onto the land as ‘green’ fertilizer. The food cycle would benefit from this.

    Culling them without using their meat is not a good idea.

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