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!)
A Little Knowledge and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources Kill Two Birds with One Chunk of Collective Stupidity
I’m angry, frustrated and helpless. I’m going to change names here, to protect good people and idiots, but this story is totally true.
Jane is one of the good people. She called me in early December to say that there were several Canada geese at a small patch of open water in Rainy River, a town of about 1,000 people in northern Ontario. One of the geese, she said, had fishing line wrapped around its foot. A local man only identified as a veteran of the Korean War — I’ll call him the war vet — was feeding the birds. What would happen when the last traces of water inevitably froze over?
Some Canada geese will winter as far north as there is open water, but they can’t be expected to survive complete freeze-up. The bird with the entangled foot needed immediate help, I said. It needed veterinarian attention, and possibly a permanent home after treatment. The others, if they were not compromised, would probably move south when the water froze.
The goose with the bad foot was caught. The foot was dangling by a thread of tissue, and so was removed.
But then the goose was released!
I hasten to add that Jane was not responsible for that last decision. She was busily trying to find sanctuary for it, but such sanctuaries are extremely scarce in that vast, forested region and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) has absurdly restrictive regulations concerning wildlife rehabilitation; rehabilitation is not something that the ministry encourages. At least the end was quick. Predators tend to preferentially prey upon the sick or injured, and an eagle killed that unfortunate goose shortly after it was released.
Unknown to me there was another goose apparently also entangled with fishing line. On the night of Dec. 9 I attended a meeting and arrived home late to find an urgent message from Jane. It was nearly midnight but I called back anyway and she was awake and upset. As I had predicted the geese had flown when the last water froze, except for one bird that was flightless. The war vet had been feeding that bird, taming it to the point where it also could be captured and helped. I had not known about the second goose in trouble.
Earlier that day, as the would-be rescuers closed in on the hapless goose, one guy loudly and suddenly changed his mind, proclaiming the bird to have missing primaries, thus was fine and able to survive. The war vet was justifiably dumbfounded by this abrupt development; the goose bolted and the chance to catch him was lost. Meanwhile, all of this unknown to me, the war vet was castigated for feeding the bird bread. Indeed, the editor, call him Ed, of the local newspaper had published an opinion piece two days earlier saying the MNR had said the other geese were probably too weak to migrate (wrong!) and another would-be expert claimed the bread would swell in the birds’ stomachs, making them think they were full, and they’d starve. That’s nonsense. Mouldy bread or bread left to rot in the water can certainly be a problem, but the war vet had been hand-feeding fresh bread, which would not hurt the birds. They needed help!
The primaries are the outer-most and longest feathers of the wing, essential for flight. If they were really missing, then that bird could not fly. It was in grave danger and while Jane wanted to know what options were open to her, I told her that I was concerned about the bird surviving even that very night.
The MNR had said that a goose’s feet were somehow immune to heat-loss and frostbite. Not exactly. No matter the air temperature, fresh water is never colder than zero degrees Celsius, or 32 degrees Fahrenheit, and the feet can endure that temperature. But in the absence of that option, when air or ground temperature drops well below zero, the birds are at risk to the cold and loss of tissue to frostbite, not to mention their enhanced vulnerability to predation.
In my first conversation I had told Jane to try to find a sympathetic reporter to listen to the facts, but the media pickings are slim up there and she was stuck with Ed. She said when she talked to him and asked him to talk to me, he asked how I could know anything because I live in the south. Like so many people he foolishly trusted the MNR’s local office — never a good idea. It said that the flightless bird would survive on its own.
The next day, the 10th, the remaining goose was dead, out on the thinnest ice where there had last been open water.
Ed never did phone. But Jane told me that the war vet and others were blamed for the fiasco because the attempt to catch the bird had so stressed it (and don’t forget the bread).
Hence my frustration. Excluding the war vet and Jane, too many people were incapable of logical, analytical thought. Geese don’t drop dead because of being chased or stressed, or there’d be dead geese everywhere. But put them in a harsh climate, prevent them from flying, slowly choke off and then remove open water and natural food sources, and then fail to give them the help they need, and yes — that will kill them. One person allegedly said it was no big deal; just two dead geese. He’s right, but that would apply to his death, yours or mine. In the cosmic scheme of things nothing we do matters, but to us, to good people, things matter. People caused the problem and people, having brains nearly as large as a coconut, have the ability to resolve it.
And as for the people who most cared, and who were most accurate in their assessments, they are now the people most hurt, and blamed by the incompetents for a fiasco that did not have to happen.