The Canada geese come back from their winter retreats every year, and every year they pester pedestrians, pollute waters with their droppings, and impel municipalities across Ontario to look for new ways to get rid of them.
In Mississauga, Oakville, and Toronto, wildlife officers bundle geese off to rural areas every year. In Ottawa, city council has turned to drones in hopes that they’ll scare the geese off. Other cities have hired trained dogs, and used lasers and pyrotechnics. But there is no cohesive, province-wide approach to the goose problem.
But in the Lake Barcroft area of Virginia, a residents’ group came up with a solution nearly 20 years ago — and although it’s since been exported to communities across the U.S. and the U.K., it hasn’t gained a foothold in Canada.
Geese had infested the 160-acre lake just outside Washington, D.C., in 1998. The issue was tearing the community apart, pitting animal-rights activists against beachgoers who just wanted to enjoy geese-free sands.
“I’m an engineer, I like to solve problems,” says David Feld, director of GeesePeace, a non-profit that helps geese-ridden communities in need. “Look, we went to the moon — let’s see if we can solve this problem without destroying our community in the process. We’ll solve it and do it in a way that doesn’t move our problem to somebody else, that doesn’t hurt the geese.”
Feld dug into the science of goose behaviour to pinpoint their weak spots — and he found that timing is everything.
What’s good for the goose, gander, and human?
The GeesePeace approach works in two main steps. First, goose eggs are placed in a bucket of water. Eggs that sink are then coated with corn oil, which halts the development of the embryo by filling in the pores of the eggshell and preventing oxygen from getting in. (Eggs that float contain embryos that are too far along in their development and are left alone.) The geese will sit on the oiled eggs for about three weeks before realizing something is amiss, at which point it’ll be too late in the year for them to lay another clutch.
The second step is to scare the geese away from areas where they run afoul of humans before they can shed their flight feathers. Geese need a safe place to molt in the spring, because the process renders them flightless for eight weeks afterwards. Feld says it’s best to scare them off when they’re searching for a hideout, because the wary birds will fly to safer, more isolated areas. It’s also vital to ensure people don’t feed the geese, as that can work against attempts to scare them off.
“It works all the time,” he says. “Zero failures. The only time it fails is when you stop doing it. You do the program, like cutting the grass, you’ve got to do it every year. It gets easier and easier every year. We turned it into a recreation activity. We trained people to do it, and we have a group of five or six people. After we solved it in our community, my next step was to make sure we’re not moving our problem elsewhere.”
Feld and the team at GeesePeace have travelled around the U.S. and across the Atlantic to teach their system. The two-step approach has succeeded in oceanfront towns like Oyster Bay, New York, and in historic Stratford-upon-Avon, U.K., where residents sought to preserve the local swan population while getting rid of the geese.
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Municipalities flying out of formation
Every Ontarian has had a run-in with a goose, or at least with its droppings, yet complaints about them typically come too late in the season and are forgotten about by the next year. Municipalities enact short-term measures without looking for permanent solutions, and each government approaches the problem with pilot programs, as if tackling it for the first time ever.
“We don’t have a goose problem, we have a human management problem,” says Vernon Thomas, professor emeritus of integrative biology at the University of Guelph. “You have to get your act together at the start of the new year to get things operating by the first second week of March at the latest. That’s when those birds start looking for nesting sites.”
Canada geese haven’t always been a problem in southern Ontario — they nearly disappeared from the area altogether just 55 years ago, according to Environment and Climate Change Canada. The population boomed owing to reintroduction, and to humans unwittingly building ideal goose habitats: mowed lawns and manicured parks, and large waterfronts with plenty of food and lots of debris to build their nests on. Today there are around 7 million Canada geese in North America.
“The goose is a remarkably adaptable animal,” Thomas says. “We have created conditions that favour its propagation. Every parkland area is mowed to about an inch and a half, it is irrigated and fertilized. This is a six-star restaurant to a goose. The municipalities react to the problem when it becomes apparent, at which point it’s too late to do anything for that year.”
Daniel Moro, project manager with the Toronto Region Conservation Authory, says municipalities shouldn’t simply scare geese far enough away to make them someone else’s concern. “The biggest problem is, where would these birds get pushed to?” he says. “How far do we keep pushing these birds?”
The TRCA, instead of foisting geese on neighbouring communities, trucks the birds from the Toronto waterfront to willing hosts across Ontario — including Amherstburg, Morrisburg, and Long Point conservation area. Mississauga and Oakville ship their birds to the Aylmer Wildlife Reserve. Moro says 10 per cent of them fly home immediately, but the remainder tend to stay away, and each year fewer return to the waterfront.
Feld agrees that pushing the birds from town to town is a flawed strategy. That’s why GeesePeace is a regional program, he says — and why Ontario’s enduring goose-control problem is more about coordination than it is about the birds themselves.
The Association of Municipalities of Ontario, an umbrella organization for the province’s municipalities, says its members haven’t asked for a broad, province-wide solution.
“I think municipal governments want to make sure that they have the flexibility to manage geese using methods that are both effective in their communities and supported in their communities,” says Pat Vanini, executive director of AMO. “If a best-practice comes along, municipal governments will gravitate toward that approach. In the meantime, different municipal governments are using the approaches that they feel are right for their communities.”
The issue of jurisdiction makes coordinating goose-banishing efforts more complicated. Canada geese are federal birds, regulated by the Migratory Birds Convention Act, which falls under the purview of the federal government. Municipalities looking to oil eggs or take other measures against geese first have to obtain a permit from the Canadian Wildlife Service — an onerous process that requires them to come up with a full-fledged, long-term management proposal.
“The wildlife don’t care about jurisdictions,” Feld says. “It’s not a matter of economic resources — they don’t need a lot. What they need is leadership, cooperation and coordination. If they do that, they’ll be successful.”
Photo courtesy of PentaxFanatiK and licensed for commercial use under a Creative Commons licence. (See the uncropped version.)
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