The enigma of the geese

The enigma of the geese

By Robert A. Hedeen

By Robert A. Hedeen


I was sitting on a bench along the Sinississippi bike path last summer when a young woman pedaled past. Suddenly, a toddler playing nearby dashed across the path directly in front of the cyclist, and she was forced to suddenly apply the brakes. Unfortunately, the rear wheel locked on a large pile of goose droppings, and the bike went into a skid., ending up in a nasty fall near the river’s edge. The woman was lucky in that she was uninjured, where she could have just as easily broken her neck or taken a bath in the river.

Numerous Canada geese were nibbling at the grass in the area as well as floating contentedly in the river. I said to myself, “What are these geese doing here during the summer? They should be on their breeding and nesting grounds at Horicon Marsh or some other area far to the north of Rockford.” Then I remembered we were dealing with the non-migratory form of the goose which has been flourishing in recent years in this and other areas of the country.

For countless ages, the Canada goose (not Canadian goose) was strictly a migratory species—nesting in the wetlands of the far North during the warm months of the year and flying south along established flyways during the colder months. Hunting seasons for these popular and delicious waterfowl were coordinated to coincide with their time of arrival in specific areas of their flyways. During these periods, the birds were usually quite numerous; but at other times, they were non-existent in that particular area.

I was living on the eastern shore of Maryland in the early 1970s , when I first noticed that some of these magnificent birds, for some unknown reason, were setting up housekeeping in my area during the spring and. summer months. They were remaining close by year-round.

I lived in a rural subdivision that featured a 9-hole golf course surrounded by water. I was trying to shoot par one day in April, when I noticed a female honker sitting on a nest built near the water’s edge. A gander was noted to be cruising offshore, close to his mate’s nest. I cautiously approached the nest, and when I reached a certain point, the goose rose up and made threatening sounds and gestures. Seven large eggs were observed in the nest.. The gander responded with similar threatening sounds. I backed away, not wanting to be attacked by two irate geese.

A few weeks later, I observed the nest to be unoccupied and empty ( except for broken shells) and the happy family to be cruising along Indian-file off shore. The goose led the gaggle of seven goslings, and the gander brought up the rear.

In the following years in Maryland, the numbers of these non-migratory geese in the entire region increased exponentially to the point they became a major nuisance, such as the situation we find in northern Illinois today. The greens on the golf course where I lived were almost destroyed by uric acid in the geese feces. Lawns and parks in the region suffered a similar fate.

A federal wildlife specialist was called in for advice on how to alleviate the problem, but he offered no practical ideas — scramble the eggs by shaking, coat the eggs with mineral oil, or just wait until the number of geese increased to a point an epizootic would occur, and most would die from some infectious agent. I recall that he did not advocate the use of dogs or explosive devices to chase the offenders from one place to another.

When the problem became almost unbearable, the Fish and Wildlife Service authorized a special hunting season during the summer, and though large numbers of geese were harvested, hardly a dent was made in the population. When I moved to Loves Park in September of 1999, I was not at all surprised to have several geese in my front and back yard to welcome me.

No biologist knows for sure why a certain portion of the North American Canada goose population changed from long-established migratory instincts to non-migratory behavior. Certainly, the feeding of these geese during the cold months of the year, when their normal food sources are almost non-existent,. plays a role in this change, but this alone is not the complete answer. Many believe we are witnessing evolution in progress.

The splitting of a single species into subspecies is the first step in the genesis of a new species. To be a genuine new subspecies or race or tribe, there must be anatomical and morphological differences that can be recognized. Some biologists, at least in Maryland, claim to have detected subtle but definite differences between the migratory and the non-migratory forms. To be recognized as separate species, however, organisms must be reproductively isolated. That is, for some reason, they cannot produce fertile offspring.

In nature, reproductive isolating mechanisms usually require a large amount of time to develop, and, as far as I know, at this time, no evidence exists that the two subspecies of geese cannot mate and produce viable and fertile goslings. Who can determine how long it will take for the two races of geese to attain the status of separate species; if indeed, we are witnessing evolution in progress.

As for our problem in the Rockford area, I can foresee no meaningful solution to it outside of creating a spring and summer hunting season and the education of the public in not providing food for the interlopers at any time of the year. The Rockford Park District has a program for addressing the problem. Dogs are used to harass the geese, but this just causes them to go elsewhere in the area. Eggs are addled or oiled when they can be located, and these procedures have undoubtedly resulted in a small reduction in the number of geese present locally.

In any event, they are beautiful and interesting birds, and much enjoyment may be had by observing how they are fitting into the overall ecology of our region. The geese are here to stay, so we might as well make the best of the situation.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of eastern Maryland, with degrees in zoology and botany. He is a former professor of biological science. He has had 30 scientific papers published, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on marine biology of Maryland.

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