Monday, November 19, 2012

Does Familiarity Breed Contempt?

Our friend Dave Catlin* wrote this article for Greene Magazine.  He graciously agreed to let me reprint it on the blog.

Goose poop average frequency- 7 minutes!  MDC
Some evening in the upcoming weeks, I know, I will be out in the yard after dark, and I will hear the distant honking of a flock of geese, high up, winging their way south on a brisk north wind.  I’ll experience a sudden chill, and not just from the wind. Geese carry a bit of wild magic for me.

It used to be that a lot of people felt that way. But that was before geese—Canada geese, anyway—became a part of our everyday urban existence. Now, people are more likely to think of them pooping on lawns and golf courses, and challenging dog-walkers at Close Memorial Park with a hissing defiance. It’s the irony of adaptability. The birds that figure out how to get along with humans lose some of their appeal for us.

In a few cases, I suppose we can blame it on the birds. There were those crows in New York City that learned how to fly into open windows of the older office buildings and steal lunches off desks. There was a mockingbird in Florida that could imitate the sound of an alarm clock, and started demonstrating its virtuosity every day about three o’clock in the morning. I can understand how folks might lose enthusiasm for such birds. But mostly, the bird species that have adapted to human presence are just birds being birds.

That is certainly true of the geese. Most of the Canada geese we encounter in urban areas in Missouri are descendants of a subspecies called the Giant Canada Goose. Unlike the other subspecies of Canada goose, most of which nest far up in their namesake country and only winter in the U.S., the Giant Canadas historically nested in Missouri, some of them on the dolomite bluffs along the Missouri River. They are programmed to hang around these parts. That habit almost led to their extermination, as Midwestern hunters enjoyed an unrestricted supply of goose dinners back in the days before closed seasons and bag limits.

Biologists came to the rescue in the nick of time, using a variety of techniques to bring them back. One of the techniques was to encourage them to nest in urban areas, where predators are few. It worked. Estimates are that more than 1.5 million Giant Canada geese now live in North America. And they don’t do anything differently than their wilder cousins: they eat grass and grains, they nest in the spring and protect their nests from threats, they poop.
Like in-laws, we liked them better when they only visited a few days a year. Now that they live with us, the magic is gone.
I can see wild turkeys working on a similar reputation. Only 10 or 15 years ago, it was exciting to see them almost anywhere in Greene County. Now, they seem to be everywhere. When I go to the Springfield Conservation Nature Center, I have to wait for the turkeys to get out of the way before I can park my car. Last month I almost hit a couple of them while I was bicycling down the South Creek Trail. The wild turkey, of course, is the poster child for successful wildlife restoration, so we should be delighted that the species is doing so well. But are we? Or is the wildlife less magical when it isn’t so wild?
Maybe so. But I for one am happy to have more geese close by, and more turkeys, and chimney swifts in the chimneys and purple martins in the martin houses. I’m pleased they have all learned to live with people, and I generally think it would be good if we can help more of their kin to do the same. Because when I hear the far-off geese at night in the fall, their honking fading toward the south, I know they’re saying, “You’ll miss us when we’re gone!”

* Dave Catlin is a familiar presence on the conservation scene in Springfield from his leadership at the Springfield Conservation Nature Center from 1987 to 1998.  He is currently Senior Director of Field Support for the National Audubon Society.

Greene Magazine covers local gardening and conservation issues.  It focuses on local water issues this month, and is  available on newstands, at or is free with a membership in

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