Migrating from precipice of extinction to manageable backyard pest
North America’s most common and well-known waterfowl, the Canada goose, provokes emotions that range nearly as far and wide as the creature migrates. The Great Lakes Region is a magnet for the giant Canada goose that can live up to 24 years in the wild and weighs between six and 19 pounds. Whether welcomed, beloved, hunted, or just considered a pest, the Canada goose sees a habitat invitation in the way we’ve changed the landscape.
As snow melts and water becomes more open, they return. Some never left, lingering near aerators and pecking at turf. Canada geese are complex birds with qualities that can be inspiring or irritating, depending how you look at them.
Flying in a V-shaped formation, individual geese at the point take turns serving as leaders and windbreaks for the rest of the flock, enabling other birds in their extended family to conserve energy and better communicate during journeys of varying lengths. Whenever a flock lands, a designated sentinel watches for predators while the rest of the flock eats and rests.
Canada geese find a mate whom they stay with throughout the year and commonly remain with for life. Large geese pair up with large geese, while smaller geese select smaller ones to mate assortively. Each hen builds a bowl-like nest using dry grasses and other plant materials along with some of her own feathers atop a muskrat mound or other slightly elevated site in or near water. With a clear line of sight, she incubates a single clutch of 2-8 eggs for nearly a month. Her gander (male mate) with vibrating neck feathers, pumping head, and open bill hisses and honks, ready to protect the hen and their young.
Fuzzy yellow hatchlings peck out of their shells and leave the nest when 1-2 days old, often staying with their parents for the entire first year of their lives, returning to the place of their nativity year after year. If something happens to one or both parents, other geese readily step in to raise any goslings, in contrast to Mallard hens which aggressively chase away orphans.
Thought to be extinct in the early 1900s because of overhunting, the giant Canada goose (Branta Canadensis maxima) was reintroduced to Illinois as well as several other states in its original range during the late 1960s.
Recently numbering approximately 96,050* in Illinois, the Canada goose population has been considered by Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) Urban Waterfowl Project Manager Roy Domazlicky to be “largely stable” for many years, and the new emphasis has turned to wildlife management. (*Source: 2014 IDNR Spring Breeding Estimate with a +/- 24,050 margin of error.)
“Of the 11 subspecies of Canada geese found in Illinois, the only species that is considered to be a year-round resident is the giant Canada goose,” says Biologist Shawn Citron of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. “We have changed the landscape, so there is no need to migrate.”
Cornell Lab of Ornithology explains that “Canada geese are particularly drawn to lawns for two reasons—they can digest grass, and when they are feeding with their young, manicured lawns give them a wide, unobstructed view of any approaching predators.”
When Bob Knox, owner of Knox Swan and Dog, LLC, initially moved to the Barrington area in 1983, there were barely any geese, but since then, the landscape has changed. Retention ponds were created within the addition of new subdivisions and office parks to accommodate runoff. Carp were added to the ponds to curb algae growth caused by fertilizer runoff, and aerators were added to provide oxygen for the carp.
Water that would have frozen became open year-round, so geese no longer had to endure the perils of extended migratory travels. Grass was kept neatly mowed and goose hunting was not permissible. The giant Canada goose reintroduction initiative went from being a success to a source of concern as well-meaning people began to feed geese stale bread and crackers leading to the development of excess fecal waste and subsequent water quality issues.
For Knox, this challenge became a business opportunity that after 23 years employs a team of nine full-time staff, including Knox’s son, Jake. The secret to their success is the element of surprise. There are no set times for visiting each of the 360 sites that Knox and his team serve during their weekly rounds which begin as early as 3:30 a.m. and end as late as 9 p.m. A trained Border Collie runs the shoreline while Knox puts a kayak in the water. “Geese see the dog as a predator,” explains Knox. “[Then] they fly to the pond, and I chase those 100 percent off the pond or lake.”
During spring migration, Knox says that he can have geese gone within a week, while during breeding season, removal can take closer to a month. Knox finds that goslings from adjacent properties will sometimes wander into some of the areas he has treated. “After a few visits, geese recognize the truck and leave.“
For those seeking a more aesthetic approach to goose management, Knox rents swans. “One pair of swans will maintain up to a five-acre pond,” says Knox. Cob (male) and pen (female) swans work together to build a nest on a floating platform Knox provides. Cobs chase ganders off the pond during breeding season. Trumpeter Swans are a native species that keep geese out, but wander up to two miles away even when there is food close by. Mute swans are more commonly used because they are not as noisy as Trumpeters, and don’t tend to wander. Between the last week of October and the first week of November, Knox picks up the swans and their cygnets for relocation to their winter home in Wisconsin, returning them to the same work site each subsequent year to continue their quest.
The Canada goose is beloved by many people, yet its adaptability to breeding and living in urban and cultivated areas such as subdivisions, golf courses, parks, and corporate properties has elevated it to pest status.
At home, adding a shoreline buffer (at least 30’ wide) with plants at least 30” tall, and a narrow, winding pathway to access the water can make your yard a less desirable place to visit, but if your neighbors choose not to do the same, geese may still arrive. For those who feed songbirds, feeders should be kept as far away from water as possible, off the ground, and free of seed beneath.
Scare tactics including the use of pyrotechnic devices and predator decoys can work, but need to be changed over time to be effective. “People who have used multiple methods experience the best results,” says Domazlicky. Valuing the good qualities of geese and managing the landscape to encourage shorter stays can facilitate more positive relations between humans and Canada geese for seasons to come.
Here are some other tips and resources for co-existing with this native North American bird:
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April Anderson is a naturalist and freelance writer who can be contacted at email@example.com.