The best book ever written about geese.

"You first hear a faint honking from one or two in the northeast and think there are but a few wandering there, but, looking up, see forty or fifty coming in a more or less broken harrow, wedging their way southwest."

Henry David Thoreau

When is a Canada Goose Not a Canada Goose?

Betty Conley

As strange at it seems to those of us living in the Atlantic states, the numbers of migratory Canada geese are dropping sharply. In 1987 there were 130,000 breeding pairs of geese in northern Quebec. Eight short years later in 1995, the number had dropped to 29,000 pairs. 


The relatively sedentary geese we have become accustomed to seeing at parks and golf courses are generations removed from these wild migrants. The resident population did not willingly choose to stop making their long seasonal journey because they liked the bread they were being fed at parks (the bird equivalent of non-nutritious candy), but rather because their ancestors were caged-raised and released, mostly by wildlife officials, for the purpose of increasing numbers of geese for more hunting opportunities. These releases of captive geese, at various locations across the continent, started in the 1930s and increased post-war. These cage-raised birds didn't know how to migrate - they had no parents to follow when migration time came along.


What caused the decline of the migratory population of Canada geese? Biologists state that hunting, both by the Cree and Inuit, who kill them for food in their native Quebec, and sport hunting along the eastern seaboard have contributed to the decline, as well as unfavorable spring weather conditions on the breeding grounds. The curtailing of hunting for both sport and sustenance resulted in an increase in breeding pairs to 46,000 in 1996, but recovery is still questionable.


There are two distinct populations of the migratory geese: one subspecies breeds in the northern reaches of Quebec and the other subspecies nests further east in Newfoundland and Labrador. Preservation of the genetically pure migrants is a major concern to biologists. The introduced non-migrants are a blend of these two subspecies. Migratory populations and the sedentary population apparently do not interbreed in the wild. 


Frequent releases of captive birds are the only known source of breeding Canada geese in New York. (ref. Birds of New York State by John Bull). The development of suburbia and its succulent short green grass provide excellent, almost predator-free habitat for the grazing geese. True migratory Canada geese breed only in the northern reaches of Canada. The earliest breeding record in New York State is 1949 at Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge. Earliest breeding record on Long Island was in 1970 at Gardiner's Island where 100 pairs were observed by Dennis Pulliston. (The Atlas of Breeding Birds in New York State by Andrle and Carroll) The total North American population of these introduced birds has doubled in number every five years, and currently numbers over one million. 


Wildlife officials are currently taking care to distinguish between the migratory population and the resident geese. Neck bands, placed on the resident geese during breeding season, easily distinguish them from the rarer migrants. The migrants were fitted with radio devices so their seasonal movements could be monitored. Hunting was avoided in areas migrants frequent. Surprisingly, the resident birds are not totally sedentary but they do move about within a flyway. At one time, I sent the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service the letters and numbers from the neck bands on a pair of geese. I was rewarded with a print-out of sightings on this pair; they traveled back and forth between Maryland and Long Island.


While wildlife biologists ponder ways to assist increasing the migratory population,

man's ingenuity is being put to the test devising ways to keep the droppings of  resident geese from clogging golfer's cleats. Population control and harassment methods devised by agencies such as the Animal Damage Control Unit of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture include: early hunting season; use of shellcrackers and automatic exploders; dogs trained to chase geese and other herding methods; the use of ReJeX-IT®  (grape flavored lawn spray detested by geese); recommendations to allow grass to grow long at the edges of fresh water streams and ponds or the use of alternative plantings near water ways; egg tampering; and even suspending helium-filled balloons over popular grazing areas.


None of these discouragement methods work alone, as the geese quickly become

accustomed to various disturbances.  Let's hope efforts to assist the diminishing

migratory populations are more successful.   


--Betty Conley, New York State and Federally Permitted Wildlife Rehabilitator. 


This article was published in December 1996 in an Audubon newsletter. Although the population of Atlantic Flyway geese may have rebounded since 1995, this article demonstrates that wildlife that is least managed is best managed.


  1. Fort Collins' Own Mother Goose