When Ken Cudmore was a kid growing up in Winnipeg, Canada geese were such a novelty that people would rush to gaze in awe as flocks of geese carved their V-shaped formations through the sky on their spring and fall migrations.
So, when Cudmore joined the Fort Whyte Nature Centre (now Fort Whyte Alive) in 1983, there seemed no harm in keeping a few Canada geese as a display flock for visitors.
Today, Manitoba Conservation estimates the Canada goose population in Winnipeg exceeds 170,000 during the fall migration peak. Cudmore puts the figure even higher in parks, residential subdivisions, on golf courses – anywhere there’s open space, grass and water.
And so is their manure. At Fort Whyte Alive, Cudmore, the site manager, has two workers who spend up to two hours each day sweeping goose droppings off public paths so visitors can walk.
Geese are so common that some Winnipeg streets post goose-crossing signs, much like the deer-crossing notices seen along rural highways.
They’ve become a public nuisance, thanks largely to the well-intentioned efforts of Fort Whyte Alive, which only wanted people to see these regal birds in a natural habitat.
“Too much of a good thing is not a good thing any more,” said Cudmore ruefully.
To be fair, Fort Whyte Alive had a lot of help in overpopulating Winnipeg with Canada geese.
When the City of Winnipeg and Ducks Unlimited learned of the centre’s work, they expressed interest in expanding it into an urban Canada goose-nesting project, said Cudmore.
Housing developments were going up in south Winnipeg with a new concept – retention ponds – ideal habitat for Canada geese.
Oak Hammock Marsh just north of the city was already a staging area for geese on their annual migratory flights.
So it seemed a natural fit to develop a Canada goose population in Winnipeg as a natural attraction.
No one realized how fast the population would expand.
Geese take three years from birth to become sexually mature. So the offspring of the half-dozen mating pairs retained in 1983 didn’t begin to breed until 1986.
But when they did, they were busy.
Cudmore said population counts by a city game management committee estimated 100,000 geese inside the Perimeter Highway on October 1, 1996 – the peak date for fall migration.
Subsequent annual counts found populations increased exponentially by over 20,000 a year.
Part of the reason was that Canada geese are philopatric – they return annually to the place where they were hatched, or at least where they learned to fly.
So when breeding pairs return to their nesting grounds each year, they bring an extended family of relatives along with them.
Also, Canada geese in the city have few natural enemies to keep numbers under control. Cudmore said at Fort Whyte Alive, native populations of foxes, raccoons and other predators keep nesting sites more or less in check. Not so in Metro Winnipeg, where geese wander freely unmolested.
Another major contributor to the population explosion is that it’s illegal to kill Canada geese without permission.
The 1917 Migratory Birds Convention Act, updated in 1994, protects migratory birds, their eggs and their nests from hunting, trafficking and commercialization. A federal permit is needed to kill geese or destroy nests.
Rodney Penner, Winnipeg’s city naturalist, said residents sometimes complain about geese defecating on sports fields, school grounds and other public places. Sometimes homeowners report geese ripping up turf on their lawns. Occasionally, motorists express safety concerns about geese-crossing streets and roads.
An even greater concern is geese colliding with aircraft at the nearby Winnipeg international airport. Some fear a repeat of a January 15, 2009 incident in New York City when U. S. Airways Flight 1549 collided with a flock of Canada geese, knocking out its engines and forcing the pilot to make an emergency crash landing on the Hudson River. Miraculously, all 155 people on board survived.
Transport Canada reported 30 bird strikes with aircraft at the Winnipeg airport in 2008. It did not specify how many cases involved Canada geese.
But city hall currently has no population control plan for Canada geese and has not applied for federal control permits, Penner said.
He said the city has not carried out population counts for several years but hopes to do so again.
Meanwhile, city officials are talking with Manitoba Conservation and the Canadian Wildlife Service in hopes of formulating a plan, said Penner.
All of which marks a huge turnaround for the Giant Canada goose, the most common subspecies in Manitoba, which was considered nearly extinct in the 1950s.
Naturalists built refuges, raised geese in captivity and released them into the wild to restore their numbers.
Geese are herbivorous, which means they eat grasses and grains. The newbies fared very well after adapting to human-altered landscapes, including both urban communities and agriculture.
Waste grain on farmland is a huge source of food for Canada geese stopping over on their migratory flights. So much so that the number of Manitoba Agricultural Service Corporations claims for crop losses from goose predation rose 61 per cent to 305 between 2005 and 2009. MASC paid out $900,000 in indemnities in 2009, 2.75 times the amount paid four years earlier.
In cities, Canada geese thrive on freshly mowed lawns, an easy source of high-protein food. Retention ponds in residential neighbourhoods are prime nesting sites, because geese prefer to nest in open areas where they can see advancing enemies.
Cudmore said officials have practically thrown up their hands at the seeming impossibility of controlling urban goose numbers growth without drastic and publicly unpopular action.
Manitoba Conservation classes Canada geese as problem wildlife and offers some ways of reducing their attraction to private property.
For one thing, don’t feed the geese. They’ll become used to handouts and lose their fear of humans.
Put barrier fencing around areas where geese tend to land.
Change lawn-care practices to discourage geese. Let grass grow longer, making it more difficult for the birds to find preferred, young, tender shoots. Reduce water and fertilizer use. Plant grasses and shrubs that geese do not like (e. g., fescue and juniper).
Use scaring techniques to deter geese. These can include strobe lights, flags, balloons and scarecrows. Unfortunately, noisemaking devices, the most effective method, are not popular with neighbours.
Hunting, once a method of controlling goose populations, now has a negligible effect because of the sport’s declining popularity. Wildlife officials estimate the number of hunters in Manitoba has declined by 75 per cent since the late 1970s. [email protected]