A sure sign of spring

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-111462289313454.jpg’, ‘Photo by Dr. Robert A. Hedeen’, ‘Kitty and Cheater survey a possible nesting site.’);

Kitty and Chester are a pair of mated non-migratory, resident Canada geese that have successfully reared clutches of goslings for the last four years on a small pond in the Gingerwood section of Loves Park. I know it is the same pair that reproduces in the same location each year as Chester has a crooked leg that causes him to limp when he walks along the bank of the pond or nonchalantly plods across the busy street.

Over the past four breeding seasons, they have produced an average of five young each year, with two or three of the goslings surviving to adulthood. Just recently, I observed the pair constructing their nest, and I know that a batch of eggs will soon be laid. As regular as clockwork, we can expect to see the young ones being taught the necessities of life by their parents sometime during the first week of May.

The problem of non-migratory geese has plagued communities from the Eastern seaboard through the heartland of the country. On the eastern shore of Maryland where I formerly lived, the birds became so numerous and annoying that a special permit was obtained from the federal government, which allowed hunters to shoot them during the period when migratory Canada geese were not passing through the area.

Canada geese are pretty smart birds, and when well-meaning humans started to provide food for them during the cold months of the year, some decided it was not worth the considerable effort required to continue their annual migration.

The problem in the Rock River Valley peaked about five years ago when the geese seemed to be everywhere. One ventured on the bike path along the river at his own risk, and I once saw a teen-ager on a bicycle skid on goose droppings and almost slide into the river.

Mammals excrete the nitrogenous wastes of their metabolism in the form of a water soluble compound known as urea, but birds get rid of their nitrogenous wastes in the form of insoluble uric acid via the feces. We all know what happens to a lawn when we are careless and apply an excess of nitrogen-based fertilizer, well, and the same thing happens when the much more potent uric acid is applied by the geese: the grass is killed and takes a considerable time to regrow.

A few years ago, the Rockford Park District initiated a program to abate the goose problem. Specially trained dogs were used to drive the birds from areas frequented by humans, nests were located, and the eggs were either covered with oil or violently shaken (scrambled?) to prevent hatching, and signs were erected encouraging well meaning bird lovers not to feed them. There was talk of passing a law making it a misdemeanor to feed resident Canada geese, but I don’t think that was approved. In any event, it seems that in 2005 there are far fewer resident geese around than formerly. They seemed to, for the most part, have taken the hint that the majority of people just don’t like them and their annoying habits. I still see large numbers of them in rural areas such as along the Kishwaukee River and Pierce Lake.

Some biologists believe the non-migratory or resident Canada goose has achieved the status of being a subspecies of the migratory form. This happens in nature when a population is divided for some reason and sets up housekeeping in a new environment. The formation of subspecies is the first step in the evolutionary process of forming a new species. When two subspecies have the opportunity to breed, they are capable of producing fertile offspring. Only when they become genetically isolated are they bona fide different species. Most biologists insist there must be some discernible difference between the two subspecies or races, and some experts claim they can determine if a goose is of the migratory or non-migratory resident type just by looking at it.

A few years ago, there were at least five mated pairs of geese inhabiting the small pond in my area, and today, as far as I can determine, only Kitty and Chester are using the pond as a site to perpetuate the species. For old time’s sake, I feel sure the other residents of my area have a soft spot in their heart for this pair and will do nothing to drive them off.

In the last year or so, a pair of wild turkeys has taken up residence in the wooded areas of Gingerwood, and last year produced a crop of four youngsters. It might be the geese noticed these birds and decided they did not want to compete with them for the limited amount of living space available. Or the wild turkeys, who Ben Franklin wanted as our national bird, passed the word on they did not want an unpopular bird in the same neighborhood they adopted.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

From the April 27-May 3, 2005 issue

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