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The Atlantic
The Atlantic
Marion Renault

America Did Too Good a Job at Saving Canada Geese

De Agostini / Getty

Throughout the town of Rochester, Minnesota, where I grew up, 18 themed goose statues (each an imposing 5 feet tall and 525 pounds heavy) stand sentinel. Airport Goose wears aviator goggles. A press pass hangs around Newspaper Goose’s neck. Library Goose cosplays as William Shakespeare. At amateur baseball games, Rochesterites cheer for the Honkers. In our local newspaper, the movie reviews once issued ratings on a scale from zero to four honks. The city’s flag features three Canada geese flapping over the skyline.

Clearly, Rochester loves its geese. But also, sometimes, it can’t stand them. The city’s estimated 6,000 Canada geese regularly irritate their human neighbors with ill-tempered honking and steadfast production of up to two pounds of poop daily that foul parks and regularly close beaches.

“That’s the No. 1 complaint in parks since I’ve been here,” Paul Widman, the director of the city’s parks-and-recreation department, told me at Silver Lake Park last October, the sound of honking overhead. “Geese.” In Rochester, and in many other cities and suburbs, local geese have become almost too wild for human liking—largely thanks to decades of our own meddling.

Rochester’s avian love-hate affair began about 100 years ago, when Dr. Charles Mayo, of the hospital dynasty, brought 15 Canada geese to his family’s estate. Around then, the Canada goose was fated to join a slate of birds—Labrador ducks, great auks, passenger pigeons, Carolina parakeets, and heath hens among them—that humans had wiped from the skies. In Rochester, the birds thrived. Fifteen soon became 600, as the flock attracted migrating brethren to stick around. When a power plant started warming Silver Lake in 1948, the gaggle stopped migrating and became year-round residents. In the early 1960s, the Silver Lake goose count first reached 6,000—one bird for every seven human residents.  

Then, in 1962, regional biologists discovered that Rochester’s geese belonged to Branta canadensis maxima, a giant subspecies presumed extinct for 30-plus years and even considered a myth by some. The rediscovered band of survivors made national news and spurred efforts to rebound their population. By the early 2000s, the local count reached roughly 40,000.

The city has since done its darndest to get the local gaggle under control without resorting to lethal methods. The park service removed bird feeders. It planted tall grasses and wetland plants in favored nest sites. Those actions helped greatly reduce the goose population. Last year, Rochester took a new tack, called “addling”—dipping about 400 goose eggs in corn oil, which prevents them from developing and which appears to have had some initial success. This spring, the parks department found about half as many nests and 40 percent fewer eggs.

[Read: No bird wants to live in a murder nest]

Across the country, many other civilians, land managers, and municipalities are turning to a wide arsenal of methods for wrangling the birds. One can choose to chase geese; spray them with repellent; shoot them with lasers; harass them with electronic alarms, air horns, sirens, even the sound of a leaf blower; deter them with balloons, scarecrows, and strobe lights. One can contract companies whose border collies bark and scare the birds, or feed geese OvoControl, an oral contraceptive that reduces hatching success. The city of St. Louis has tricked would-be parents with wooden decoy eggs. In the ’90s, Chicagoland suburbs fought “fowl with fowl,” carting in mute swans to square off with its resident Canada geese (an ill-advised method that risks the introduction of feral invasive swans). Many have chosen to simply cull geese in round-ups where the birds are herded into portable pens and carried to gas chambers, sometimes in the back of parked trucks where their thumps and squawks can be heard by passers-by. In 2021, the USDA alone euthanized about 26,000 Canada geese—a figure that includes about 18,900 birds killed by trapping, 5,500 with firearms, seven with a cannon rocket, and at least one with a bow.

So often, human attempts to redress the wrongs done to other species end up failing, sometimes spectacularly. Rochesterites now have to contend with one that has succeeded wildly, transforming the geese from a miracle of resurrection to a quotidian nuisance in a matter of decades. “It’s part of our heritage,” Brandon Schad, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources wildlife supervisor for the Rochester area, told me. What to do with that heritage has divided the town. Some welcome further intervention; others prefer to stop manipulating avian biology to suit human needs, and call for people to let the geese live as they will. But no matter what we do—even if we do nothing—these birds, it seems, are the ones that cannot escape us. “The situation is obviously not unique to Rochester,” Paul Curtis, a professor and wildlife specialist at Cornell University, told me. “People need to learn to live with geese.”  

The Canada goose belongs to a category of organisms—synanthropes—whose defining feature is a simultaneous proximity to and independence from humans.

These creatures (think: crows, raccoons, coyotes, and deer) thrive near people, in the convenient absence of natural predators and the incidental abundance of shelter and food. But they are not pets or livestock—humans exercise very little control over their biological destiny. These animals are not quite wild, nor altogether domesticated.

For urbanites and suburbanites whose entire experience with wildlife may be confined to built environments, synanthropes can be emotionally confounding. “Many or most people like having wildlife around—until there’s conflict,” Lynsey White, the director of humane wildlife-conflict resolution at the Humane Society of the U.S., told me. “Then they want it solved immediately.”

Among synanthropes, geese tend to be particularly conflict-prone. Unlike raccoons or possums, they are not nocturnal. Unlike deer, rats, or pigeons, they do not scurry meekly from our approach. And unlike mice or gulls, they are physically imposing. Geese, instead, are unapologetically free. They honk and hiss. They charge when threatened. They poop and protect their younglings with remarkable vigor. To our widespread discontent, geese refuse to submit to humans.

“Geese defend themselves. That’s what makes them almost a stand-alone,” says David Shearer, a biology Ph.D. student at Ball State University who studies goose-human conflict. “They do not flee from very many things, if anything at all.” One of Shearer’s research projects, a survey of about 2,500 people in the Indianapolis region, found that two out of three respondents characterized their feelings toward geese unfavorably. “It is overwhelmingly negative,” Shearer told me.

Almost a century ago, when Mayo first brought Canada geese to Rochester, though, the birds symbolized a kind of wilderness whose value, if lost, would be felt through its absence. “There were hardly any Canada geese left,” David Feld, the program director of the consulting nonprofit GeesePeace, told me. In many places, geese were pinioned with weights or clipped wings to serve as live decoys to attract migrant geese for hunters. “They just slaughtered them,” Feld said.

In 1918, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act criminalized the hunting, capturing, killing, or selling of a migratory bird or any of its parts, paving the way for early avian conservation. Bolstered by growing ranks of naturalists both professional and amateur, geese and other migratory birds escaped extinction. “There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot,” the Wisconsite Aldo Leopold wrote in 1949’s A Sand County Almanac. “For us of the minority, the opportunity to see geese is more important than television.” In some cases, humans even went out of their way to artificially stoke their populations.

For 1968’s Operation Mother Goose, for example, wildlife officials lifted about 1,200 Canada-goose eggs from along the Columbia River, on the Washington-Oregon border, where a damming project would soon flood their nests. They placed the eggs in cardboard boxes insulated with borrowed down feathers, strapped the loads to a helicopter, transferred each egg from box to incubator, and—by summer—re-homed the hatchlings across the Pacific Northwest, Arizona, and Idaho to kindle their wild population across the region.

[Read: The astronaut who reared the world’s highest-flying birds]

Protected from unregulated hunting and fostered by such intentional conservation efforts, geese bounced back in cities and suburbs where food was plentiful and predators scarce. Many found such safe harbor that they stopped migrating to the Arctic altogether. Having avoided near-extirpation, Canada geese moved in the opposite direction, saturating all available habitat. Their nationwide population exploded by 14-fold, from 250,000 to 3.5 million from 1970 to 2010, according to federal estimates. By the ’90s, Feld told me, “People said, ‘Uh-oh, what did we do?’”

You can execute step one of a goose-egg heist with a large umbrella, but this spring, Widman opted for a wide rake. Advancing toward a nest, he bounced the rake on the ground and fanned it in the air. Usually, that was enough to vex the sometimes-ornery geese into scattering with little to no serious repercussions for Widman or the pair of helpers who abetted him in collecting eggs. “They kind of flap their wings—that’s the most I get out of them,” Widman said. “A hiss, maybe.” Once the coast was clear, the trio swapped the real eggs out for ceramic replicas—almost 240 in all—and backed away. By federal permit, the real eggs then had to be smashed, burned, or otherwise disposed of. “They went in the trash,” Widman said.

The ceramic-swap strategy is a follow-up to last year’s addling, which the city hoped would prevent new goslings from expanding the local flock count. More than Widman had anticipated, he said, the public soured to the egg-slicking practice. After a critical column in the local newspaper, two dozen angry protesters showed up at Silver Lake on the day of the addling. “They are killing their babies. They are suffocating them,” the resident Megan Mathis told local television reporters. On Facebook, residents exchanged what in Minnesota are warring words. “I hope those geese attack them when they go near the eggs,” read one. Public officials made oblique comparisons to abortion. “I would rather see a goose be allowed to come out of its egg, grow up, and be allowed to become a game bird,” said Dave Senjem, a longtime Republican state senator from Rochester, who then proposed a statewide moratorium on goose-addling permits. Greg Munson, who wrote the column, said he felt the addling overplayed humans’ right to tailor ecosystems to our liking. “We’re not meant to dominate. We’re meant to coexist with other species,” he told me.

[Read: When conservationists kill lots (and lots) of animals]

But even coexistence with humans ends up posing an existential threat to the synanthropic birds. “The people who love the geese are the problem sometimes, really,” Feld told me.

For one, feeding geese processed products, including bread, can lead to angel wing, a potentially lethal disease that causes wings to grow irreversibly at an unnatural angle and can leave a bird flightless and rejected from its flock. Human feeding also encourages flocks to expand, leading to overcrowded conditions that facilitate the spread of diseases such as botulism, cholera, or avian flu. (Rochester is currently investigating an avian-flu outbreak, following the death of about 20 geese throughout the city, some of which have tested positive for the virus.)

Urbanites may also be pushing geese to nest in new, hostile environments. In a recent study, Shearer examined Canada-goose nests around Indianapolis and documented several sites where they had constructed dens with plastic sheets and rubber automotive belts on rooftops—including a hotel, carport, and shopping plaza—where extreme heat and physical barriers could make it hard for clutches to survive. Laura Zastrow, a photographer in Rochester, told me she volunteered to addle eggs with the city last year because of the consequences of overpopulation for the birds—not for people. “I care about the geese,” she said. “I think it’s more important to have these geese have a higher quality of life and for us to enjoy them from afar.”

Humans feel such a spectrum of emotions for geese, including reverence and blood thirst, that it can be almost impossible to come up with a management strategy that appeals to most of the public, experts say. “Resident geese are a man-made problem,” Widman acknowledged. “It’s not a problem that we began, but that we inherited.” That inheritance will continue to challenge our notion of where human territory ends and the rest of nature begins. The geese circling overhead on our walk around Silver Lake last fall, after all, may have been the descendants of captured geese whose wings were clipped by humans, or the layers of eggs that, by our hand, would never hatch. They’ll be ours—our neighbors and our foes and the living evidence of our own foibles—for the foreseeable future, Widman said. It’s up to us to make peace with them, not the other way around. As Mary Oliver wrote in her 1986 poem “Wild Geese,” “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, / the world offers itself to your imagination / calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting— / over and over announcing your place / in the family of things.”

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