Monday, December 3, 2012

Resident Canada Geese

Geese at Close Park
Ever wonder how we got so many Canada geese that don't seem to know where Canada is located?  You know, the ones you see on local ponds like Lake Drummond at Close Memorial Park.  The ones that poop all over the sidewalk and chase you if they think you might have bread for them.

I was told years ago in Rochester, Minnesota that wounded or deliberately injured geese were used as living decoys in the early 1900s and lost the ability to migrate.  It appears that this story is only partially true.

The giant Canada goose subspecies, Branta canadensis maxima, was a common species in the Upper Midwest before settlers arrived.  Wetlands were drained extensively to develop rich crop land.  Illinois has lost 90% of its wetlands including the 60 mile area around Chicago which is now rolling farmland.  There was also unlimited hunting of these large birds.

One could say they were "sitting geese" In addition to being big and juicy targets, they do not migrate and tend to adopt a body of water as home.  Because of this they could be depended upon to return to the scene of a hunting crime against their relatives, a hunter's dream.  As wetlands disappeared, they ran out of habitat.  By the 1950s they were thought to be extinct.

Dr. Harold Hanson of the Illinois Natural History Survey identified the geese that wintered on Silver Lake in Rochester, Minnesota in 1962 as giant Canada geese.  With controlled hunting regulations, additional man-made habitat and migratory bird regulations protecting their nests and territory, they have flourished.  This is a heart warming conservation success story unless they are filling your favorite pond.  
"Since its rediscovery, the giant Canada goose has recovered more quickly than any other subspecies and now makes up the bulk of our resident goose populations. There are estimated to be as many as 1 million giant Canada geese in the Mississippi flyway, as many as all other Canada geese subspecies in the flyway combined."  Illinois EPA
How did this happen?  In addition to the protection of hunting regulations, we made them our tame pets.  They are herbivores and can survive on a wide range of corn, grain and grasses, but who hasn't seen a family with a loaf of bread feeding the geese down by the lake as the flock gathers around to enjoy an urban treat.  Our ponds are safe havens with few of the usual predators such as coyotes.  Their eggs are even safe from all but the most aggressive predators and migratory waterfowl laws protect their nests from human disturbance.  They can be aggressive when they feel threatened, intimidating even the neighborhood dogs.  In short, they have it real good.
"Canada goose "paradise" would include acres of short tender grass, a freshwater pond for drinking water and security, and no predators. It would look much like a public park, corporate office campus, golf course, cemetery, or waterfront yard. However, while other Canada goose subspecies are wary of humans, giant Canada geese are predisposed to ignore people. The biologist who rediscovered the giant Canadians noted that the "placid disposition of the giant Canada goose sets it apart from all others."   Illinois EPA
Back to the living decoy story, there is some truth to that.  Eastern states such as New York and Massachusetts imported giant Canadian geese for hunting.
"The second is the resident population: descendants of captive geese used by waterfowl hunters. When live decoys were outlawed in the 1930s, many captive birds were liberated. With no pattern of migration, these geese began nesting. Lawns at houses, golf courses and mowed parks, well-watered, fertilized and bordering water, provided an excellent source of food. In suburban areas, there were few predators. The habitat for grazers was perfect."
This is summarized by the words of Jim Sterba in writing in the Wall Street Journal:
"Commercial and sport hunters long kept live birds (in addition to wooden facsimiles) as decoys to lure migrating waterfowl.  The use of these live flocks wasn't outlawed until 1935.  They hadn't migrated in generations.  The outlaw birds were used to stock newly created refuges in the hope that they would join migrating flocks and help them to grow.  But they stayed put.  Their descendants include the four million or so resident Canada geese that now occupy golf courses, parks, athletic fields, corporate lawns and airline flight paths."   America Gone Wild

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