Thursday, June 21, 2012

Rethinking the Canada Goose

Don't say Canadian - it's Canada.  The Canada goose (Branta canadensis) is a common sight in Lincoln Park, and I got to know their behaviors a little better as I watched them raise their young this spring.  Despite what some people say, they're really quite enjoyable neighbors.

Canada geese pair and young in Lincoln Park.
The geese started hatching in early May this year, and within a day or two, they were out of the nest walking and swimming and finding food.  Adult geese mate for life, with the average goose living around 24 years of age in the wild.  They tend and defend their young, but they do not feed them.  The goslings feed themselves as soon as they are out of the nest. 
Dabbling geese with a duck observing them, probably finding their upended tails completely hilarious.
Geese eat muck from the bottom of ponds, as you can see them doing in the photo above.  The tails-up bobbing for scum is called dabbling, and it never fails to crack me up.  Geese also eat grass, grains, berries and other plants, with the occasional bug thrown in.  Herbivores in general must eat a lot more volume of food to survive, and geese seem to eat constantly.  Such a large volume of food results in respectable quantities of goose poop, which people sometimes find annoying.  Admittedly, there are some beach areas in the US with hundreds of Canada geese where I would not want to walk barefoot or swim, but these are not the norm.  A little bit of goose poop is certainly better than a little bit of dog poop, since carnivore poop usually contains more harmful disease bacteria than herbivore poop.

Many of the geese in Lincoln Park probably flew north to Chicago earlier in the spring from the southern US or Mexico.  More Canada geese are migratory than non-migratory, though some members of the species have begun to live in the same location year-round.  The newer, non-migratory geese are an evolutionary response to the recent changes in their habitat: in the past 100 years, permanent open grassy areas with maintained, predator-free ponds have appeared everywhere.  Indeed, golf courses, airports, office complexes and neighborhoods provide goose heaven, and Canada geese have increased their numbers in response.  Once a fairly rare species, the Canada goose has become common enough to annoy annoyable people, sometimes even being called a pest.

In Lincoln Park, people mostly seem to enjoy the geese.  They watch them, photograph them and feed them, despite signs forbidding the feeding of wildlife.  The goslings provide food for the black-crowned night herons, and the geese eat excess pond vegetation.  Canada goose behaviors are fairly simple and easy to observe, so lots of kids and adults learn about bird biology by observing geese.  Unfortunately, geese seem to be such a common sight that some people have lost their respect for the geese's size and strength.  Parents let their toddlers chase the geese and approach the young, even with the parent geese hissing and ready to bite (yes, they lunge, flap, bite and cause an unnerving ruckus in self-defense).
A wood duck (left) hanging out with Canada gees (right) at the Alfred Caldwell Lily Pond in Lincoln Park.
Where Canada geese are a considered a nuisance, wildlife management personnel have responded with extended hunting seasons, attack dogs, culling of adult birds and donation to food charities, collection of eggs for human consumption (I hear they are delicious) and addling of goose eggs.  Addling is a technical term that means preventing an egg from developing without destroying the egg, by shaking or coating with oil to prevent oxygen from diffusing into the egg.  Goose eggs are addled instead of being simply taken because the geese can lay a second clutch of eggs.  Canada geese, like most animals, are regulated.  Geese are regulated by the Migratory Bird Act, so before someone dabbles in addling, they must apply for a permit.  An easier humane solution to overpopulation of geese would be to modify habitat to make it less inviting.  Geese will not nest in an area without good sight-lines for detecting predators, so smaller patches of lawn interspersed with shrubs or potential predator hiding places will deter them.  If we take a little time to appreciate and get to know Canada geese, they seem much less like nuisances and much more like fascinating clowns of the bird variety.


  1. I will forever look at the Canad goose with more respect and amusement. I am one of those who felt they were pests - mainly because they enjoyed my unshrubbed, green, lakeside lawn soooo much!

    1. I wonder if a few more shrubs would have discouraged the geese from hanging out on your yard. It might have given Pepper some cover and an actual chance to catch one.