As the leaves have fallen from the trees, our winter avian visitors are once again with us. Northern juncos, saw-whet and short-eared owls, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, pine siskins, redpolls, and snow buntings are some of these cold weather friends. Another migrant is the Canada goose. But, hold it, you say. Everyone knows Canada geese are here in the summer as well as the winter. Haven’t they stopped migrating? What’s the story?
The fact is, our numerous subspecies of Branta Canadensis (8 to 11 subspecies, depending on the taxonomist) still fly the 1500 to 3000 miles from Canada to the lower 48 over the continent’s four flyways every fall and return north the following spring. What has changed, is that their winter range has become home to an ever-increasing stock of non-migratory, or resident, geese.
First noticed in the 1960’s on golf courses and parks, these resident ‘lawn carp’ have multiplied to the point where 4 to 5 million residents now exist nationwide; roughly two thirds as many as the migrants. In our own Atlantic flyway, there are 1.2 million residents now, outnumbering the migrants by 50 percent!
So, where did these couch-potato geese come from? Two interesting stories emerge in which Man has, once again, inadvertently dropped a bowling ball on the balance of Nature.
Historically, waterfowl hunters owned ‘decoy flocks’ of captured migrant Canada geese, which they used to attract other geese. Wing feathers were clipped, and as generation after generation was kept in this manner, the birds eventually lost their habit of migration. When the use of these live decoys was outlawed in 1935, many of these were released to nearby waterways. Without the imprinting of the migration to guide them, the released geese and subsequent generations stayed in the locale, becoming welcomed guests in the lakes and ponds of communities throughout the country. Being well cared for, and with ample agricultural crops to feed on during the winter, these populations thrived and slowly spread.
At the same time, hunting continued to put its pressure on local geese populations. Nowhere was the pressure more apparent than in the Midwest and the Great Plains, where the largest subspecies of Canada goose, Branta canadensis maxima, was found. In fact, by the 1920’s, most wildlife biologists had agreed that this subspecies had been totally eliminated. So, it was with great excitement in 1962 that a biologist confirmed a flock of these large birds had been found nesting in eastern Manitoba and wintering in Rochester, MN. Of course, every NRA faction demanded some of these birds for their own hunting galleries, and most every state and federal wildlife agency just had to have some for captive breeding and release. Over the next 25 years, the breeding programs were wildly successful and this docile and low-flying subspecies was introduced to virtually every corner of the country. While these birds were originally short-distance migrants to begin with, without their parents to show them the migratory route, they quickly, and successfully, adopted the resident lifestyle as the decoy flocks did before them.
These resident geese have become quite a management problem, competing with migrant geese, contaminating land and water, and causing millions of dollars worth of crop damage. For example, Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Maryland has concluded that it must remove 3,000 of its 5,000 stock, and in August of 1999, the 17 states along the Atlantic Flyway approved a goose-management plan that calls for the reduction of the resident population of over one million birds by 550,000.