Coexisting with a bird that's both Beauty and Beast
by Bob & Jorja Feldman
From the January, 2018 issue
We check out the weather each morning by the simple expedient of stepping outside. This time of year, when we first venture out, we're often greeted by the honking of Canada geese. Watching them pass overhead in their iconic "V" formations awakes the adrenaline and stirs up a sense of life beyond smartphones.
We turned to Juliet Berger, the Ann Arbor city ornithologist, to find out more about these big beauties. Most of the ones we see, she explains, are really not going anywhere. While migrating flocks passing through may be headed as far as South America, most remain in the area year-round, leaving only if they can no longer find open water. The ones we see overhead are most likely going to a different local venue, perhaps a cornfield where they can forage for waste grain.
Canada geese pair up for life and breed at the location where the female originally came from. Each spring, a pair will hatch a brood of up to ten goslings, who will stay with their parents for a year.
Berger estimates the average lifespan of those who survive long enough to fledge is fifteen to twenty years, although she knows of one wild bird who made it to thirty and one in captivity who lived to forty-three.
The subspecies we see here are mostly the well-named giant Canada goose. Although these are wild birds, they don't require a wilderness habitat. In fact, they are fond of short grasses, like those on lawns. Golf courses are heaven on earth for these birds; the courses, however, don't consider the birds so heavenly.
Although these geese were thought to be close to extinction decades ago, wildlife management and their successful adaptation to civilization have contributed to a population explosion. This in turn has triggered the law of unintended consequences. One such consequence is an overwhelming amount of goose poop on golf courses, city sidewalks and parking lots, and nature trails, and, frequently, on the soles
of our hiking boots.
They can also be aggressive towards people. We believe that this is a learned behavior caused by people feeding the birds. (That's against park rules, says Berger, but we see it happening all the time.) Birds who have not been hand-fed often will walk away from people who approach them unless they are defending a nest.
How can we find a way to comfortably coexist? The Michigan DNR gives extensive advice on "conflicts and control techniques" on its website (goo.gl/Uewyjn), including repellants, "scare devices," and herding dogs. A few years ago, the Observer reported that the U-M was using border collies to move along geese that are harassing families entering the North Campus Children's Center.
The need to find a balance in our relationship with an animal that's both a beauty and a beast is summed up nicely on the DNR website: "Remember, giant Canada geese are thriving in large part because of the landscape changes brought on by human development. Some level of tolerance for the many other state residents, including Canada geese, must be expected of today's growing human population."
[Originally published in January, 2018.]
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