Canada Geese: Those Big Old Meanies

Why are Canada geese nesting and pooping all over our cities?

‘Tis the season for goslings again: adorable, fluffy, peeping, traffic-stopping broods of wee Canada geese, following their parents through all sorts of inappropriate and dangerous areas. As a result, many of us who work or volunteer in parks, sanctuaries, animal hospitals, etc. find ourselves responding to panicked calls for help or for information regarding said wayward geese. Here are a few of the more common questions I’ve had:

Q: Why do geese nest up high on balconies and ledges?

A: This seems to be pretty common on the prairies, and the balconies probably simulate the cliffs and terraces of riverbanks in a more natural habitat. They’re looking for somewhere isolated from terrestrial predators like skunks or coyotes. Normally, baby geese can survive quite a tumble out of these lofty nests.

canada goose
Hangin’ out at the water’s edge

Q: There’s a pair of geese nesting on my balcony! It’s adorable!

A: If you’re like most people, it’s adorable for the first three days. A hissing, territorial pair of geese on your balcony tend to wear out their welcome fairly quickly. They’ll be there for at least three weeks. I strongly encourage you to chase her off the balcony before she starts laying eggs. After that, it’ll be difficult and possibly illegal to kick her off.

Goose families on the run

Q: Now there’s a family of geese leading their babies through traffic! Are they crazy?

A: No, they’re just birds. Waterfowl often have a nesting territory that is some distance from the brood-rearing areas, up to 2 km with geese. So they need to walk them from the nesting area to the brood-reading areas, normally a wetland of some kind.

baby canada goose
 Young Canada goose, Vancouver BC

Q: So I found a gosling all by itself! What should I do?

A: Leave it if it’s not in immediate danger. It may not, in fact, be abandoned; the rest of its family might be just around the corner. But if it is well and truly lost, you could pick it up and take it to a wildlife shelter. Do not take it home and try to raise it yourself. This is difficult, illegal, and a complete pain in the ass for all parties concerned.

Lastly, you could drop it off at a local wetland where you see other families of Canada geese. They may very well adopt it. This doesn’t work with most birds! Canada geese are one of the very few species that will readily adopt strange chicks. In fact…

canada goose standing in creek
They are gorgeous, though.

Goose gang life

Q: Speaking of babies, there’s a pair of geese nearby with thirty goslings. Some are clearly bigger than others, IE from other broods. What gives?

A: Where goose populations are dense, we often see “gang brooding”. This may be cooperative: a form of goosey day care, to make foraging easier and safer for the parents. However, there is some evidence that it’s actually a hostile takeover by a dominant pair of geese. They may be actively stealing other parents’ babies, in an effort to “pad” their own brood. Their natural babies stay closer to the parents, and when a predator comes along, they’re more likely to take the foster goslings. Ain’t nature grand?

pair of canada geese
Relaxing

Q: I hear they mate for life, and if the mate dies they never mate again.

A: That’s half true. They do mate for life (unlike most ducks, that mate for a couple weeks), but if something happens to one of them, the other will likely find a new mate the following year.

So. Many. Geese.

Q: Ok but why are there so many Canada geese in my town?

A: They’re native to much of Canada and the northern US, and they haven’t always been this plentiful. In the mid-twentieth century, there were many efforts to increase their numbers, which had slipped due to overhunting and loss of habitat. These efforts were, uh, very successful. So much so that extra geese were relocated to more southerly US cities (encouraged in part, I believe, by hunting associations).

Yum

Q: And why are they everywhere in city parks?

A: Geese congregate where there is open water and abundant food. In our cities, we have eliminated their predators and laid out endless expanses of tasty green grass. Thermal pollution from our industries keeps our waterways open through the coldest winters. In these areas, Canada geese have established non-migratory populations: they know a good thing when they see it.

Less feeding, more addling

Q: How can we reduce their numbers? They’re out of control!

A: Well, we can stop feeding them, for starters. Next, one of the more humane and effective methods of population control is egg-addling, where licensed individuals (IE not just anyone, as these birds have legal protection as migratory birds) addle or shake the newly-laid eggs. This kills the embryo inside at an early stage. Parents continue to brood the eggs, which simply don’t hatch. It’s more effective than destroying the nest; the parents would simply re-lay. As waterfowl only have one brood per season, addling eggs once per season is an effective population control.

Q: But shouldn’t we  shoot all these excess geese in our parks? We could feed the poor!

A: Perhaps. But they are protected as migratory birds, and a culling program would probably involve introducing legislation, which would be politically challenging. There would be protests, unpleasant images in the media, etc. and so far nobody has taken it on, as far as I know. Efforts to control mute swans in Chesapeake Bay, for example, have been highly controversial.

baby Canada geese
Bro there’s something on your beak.

Q: So I live in Great Britain and I’m outraged at the spread of your geese which some boob introduced to our country. Kindly come and get them. (Yes, I got this comment while working on a cruise ship.)

A: We’ll get right on that, as soon as you come and get your starlings, pigeons and house sparrows. Oh, you can take back your dandelions, too.

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