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Canadian Projects

Canadian Blog

by Barry Kent MacKay,
Senior Program Associate

Born Free USA's Canadian Representative

Barry is an artist, both with words and with paint. He has been associated with our organization for nearly three decades and is our go-to guy for any wildlife question. He knows his animals — especially birds — and the issues that affect them. His blogs will give you just the tip of his wildlife-knowledge iceberg, so be sure to stay and delve deeper into his Canadian Project articles. If you like wildlife and reading, Barry's your man. (And we're happy to have him as part of our team, too!)

Scapegoating Canada Geese

Published 07/20/09

A few weeks ago, we were contacted by a man named Erick in New York asking what could be done about the culling of Canada geese in New York, as a result of the infamous crash of a U.S. Airways flight earlier this year. Thanks to a heroic captain and crew, the plane landed safely in the Hudson River as the world sat glued to the videos of the crash, which spread like wildlife across the Internet.

But unfortunately for Canada geese, it was confirmed in June that the plane crashed after it collided with a flock (albeit a migrating flock originating in Labrador, Canada), causing the engines to stall. Now, the debate about how to control bird populations at airports is again at the forefront.

Our resident bird expert and Canadian representative, Barry Kent MacKay, wrote an extremely informed and in-depth response to Erick. I wanted to share some of it with you all so you would have the information to pass along as well.

For the last twenty-odd years I have worked with my Canadian colleagues to successfully prevent all but two small culls of Canada Geese in Canada, at a time when I have sadly seen large numbers of them culled in the U.S.

The problem with the New York and New Jersey cull, now under way (and most certainly being actively protested by many good people) is that there was no mechanism presented for public consultation.

Worse, some years ago (and I am no expert on U.S. law) the U.S. essentially ceded management of this species, or so-called urban populations of it, over to State governments. It seems to me that it is a violation of a binational treaty to protect migratory birds, but the argument made at the time was that there were non-migratory “resident” populations of Canada Geese, and they should be exempt from the Migratory Birds Convention Treaty between the U.S. and Canada.

The position I took at the time, and maintain, is that there is no hard distinction between the two populations. Canada Geese that migrate may also become part of the so-called “resident” population, and vice versa.

At any rate, I presented that theory at a symposium some years ago, in Memphis, TN, held by the joint flyway commissions of the U.S. and Canada, who, in an advisory capacity, essentially regulate licensing. I was countered by the alternative argument that No, resident geese don’t join migrant flocks and if migrant geese join resident geese, they tend to remain.

In fact, analysis of the feathers retrieved from the engines of the plane downed on the Hudson River last winter show that they came from migrant Canada Geese who originated in Labrador. Thus, as I argued at that Memphis conference and have been arguing all along to no avail, there is no hard distinction between urban “resident” geese and migrants.

The so-called “resident” geese are the ones being culled in New York and New Jersey as I write. They kill breeding birds and their young and non-breeding and non-migrating birds during a time in their life-cycle when all are flightless ... the young because they have not yet matured to that stage, the adults because at this time of year, adult Canada Geese, like other native waterfowl species, molt (shed) all of their flight feathers at one time and for a couple of weeks are flightless, renewing their flight feathers with a new set in time for post-nuptial dispersal and migration.

They could have killed every Canada Goose in New York State and New Jersey last summer, and it would not have prevented those birds from Labrador from flying over the Hudson River at the time that the airplane did the same.

The purpose of the cull is to allow politicians to assure constituents that “something is being done.”

Killing is easy. But there is something else that can be done, and that is to make the urban environment, particularly in the vicinity of airports, less attractive to all geese at all times. Canada Geese are “grazers,” who eat off the tops of grass, especially when it is fresh and tender, which it is after mowing. Thus lawns, swards, greens, golf courses, sports pitches, and the like are the major attraction.

But remember that during the breeding season the birds are flightless. Thus to be attractive to breeding geese, the grass should be in the vicinity of open water, to allow the birds to escape natural predators, and find alternative food. Simply by placing low obstructions between greenswards and water (even shrubbery and natural reedy vegetation can work) one can reduce the attractiveness of a given urban environment for Canada Geese.

There are many other things that could be done to reduce the attractiveness of the area for Canada Geese and Born Free USA has funded both the production and distribution of materials aimed at teaching necessary decision makers and property managers how to reduce or eliminate those features that encourage the presence of geese.

But in the emotional response of a catastrophe, however rare and unlikely, as the one that brought down the airplane on the Hudson River last winter, it is far easier and conspicuous to instigate a cull. It won’t work to save airplanes (again I must emphasize that statistically birds are a very minor threat to air safety) but it will serve to placate the public, who lacks an understanding of why the geese are so attracted to the area in the first place, or how the appropriate officials have failed to do their respective jobs and reducing that attractiveness.

That is where people such as yourself come in, and can do something we can’t do, which is to write letters as private citizens to editors of local newspapers showing that you do understand that this cull really does not address the core problem, and indeed, scapegoats the Canada Geese, and victimizes them for the unwillingness of more effective, long-term measures in a world that, no matter what, can never be made entirely safe.

You may hear the argument that by culling breeding (so-called resident) birds in summer, the population of Canada Geese will be reduced overall, with a subsequent reduction of the likelihood of a collision occurring between Canada Geese and airplanes in the future.

There is some merit to that contention, but remember, there are still the migrant geese attracted to the area, and the area become that much more attractive to them in the absence of competition from other, “local” geese, thus their numbers can be expected to increase.

Blogging off,


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