What’s good for the goose?
There will be no quick fix in the territorial wrangle between Canadians and Canada
By Elizabeth Shilts
Shirley Bond has nothing nice to say about Canada geese. During her 20 years along
Lake Ontario in Mississauga, the geese were regular visitors to her waterfront yard
and to neighbouring Hiawatha Park. Flocks sunned themselves on her shoreline rocks
or waddled around her patio and lawn, littering them with "cigars," as she calls goose
droppings. The birds meandered to the park where their endless feeding mottled the
sod with bare patches. As her children grew, she tried to protect them from the nips
of aggressive geese. She still worries about the health risk for children who play
in the park’s sandbox. "It angers me to no end to see these doggone birds pile
into the playground," she says.
But last fall, when Bond’s yard typically would be overrun by up to 35 geese,
nary a honk was heard. Occasionally four or five would fly along the shore, but none
came to her lawn. "I was happy to see them go," she says of the 2,000 geese shipped
to wetlands in New Brunswick in June 1997 in an attempt to control expanding populations
Bond’s optimism may be premature. The solution seemed simple enough: ship the
pests off to a distant, remote new home, clean up the droppings on the lawn, and presto! paradise
found. But was it?
Wildlife management is practically an oxymoron when it comes to Canada geese. Deportation
is just one of many schemes that have been attempted with limited success. As goose-laden
communities become increasingly desperate, wildlife managers are considering more drastic
measures, including culling, suffocating eggs, and even vasectomizing ganders. A broad,
long-term strategy is being developed, but there will be many more "cigar"-littered
lawns along Lake Ontario before geese and humans settle into peaceful co-existence.
For many residents of greater Toronto, the honkers flying in V-formation are no longer
a sentimental symbol of the passing seasons, but the first sign of an onslaught of
noise, droppings and damage. Southern Ontario has always been a stopover for populations
of Canada geese migrating between their wintering grounds in the United States and
their vast nesting grounds in Northern Canada. But overhunting in the late 1800s and
early 1900s almost wiped them out. Now the birds have become a continent-wide problem
wherever urban shorelines and goose flyways intersect.
When the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources reintroduced Canada geese (Branta canadensis)
across southern Ontario beginning in 1968, the project was heralded as a wildlife management
success: people welcomed the majestic, white-cheeked birds back to Toronto. But it
soon became apparent that wildlife managers had created a monster: fuelled by a ready
food supply and safe from hunters, the goose population stopped migrating and began
to double every five years, reaching an estimated 250,000 birds in southern Ontario
by 1997, concentrated between Hamilton and Oshawa. Today, municipal and wildlife officials
are trying everything in their power to discourage geese without discouraging people
from using urban green space — a tricky balance since geese and humans are drawn
to the same places for the same reasons: secure, manicured lawns and waterfront vistas.
Years of scavenging by geese created a wasteland of Mississauga’s J. C. Saddington
Park, a few kilometres west of Shirley Bond’s home, but today there are signs
of recovery. New shoots of grass are pushing through the dusty ground once plucked
bare. Paths and lawns are still sprinkled with green droppings (Canada geese relieve
themselves every six to eight minutes while eating), but nothing like in years past,
says Mark Hillis, city supervisor for lakefront parks. "This time last year," he says, "you
couldn’t put one foot on the turf without a problem."
As he surveys the scenic waterfront, two geese float down the Credit River toward
Lake Ontario, two more nip away at grass on the east bank, and a dozen feed on the
west. Last year, some 250 geese called this area home. "This park was beaten to death," says
Hillis as he examines newly sodded rye grass, a tougher variety he hopes geese will
find less savoury than the commonly used Kentucky bluegrass.
Unappetizing grass is just one deterrent Toronto-area municipalities are using to
repel the flocks. Along Lakeshore Boulevard in Toronto, a wooden boardwalk winding
toward Sunnyside Pavilion and Ontario Place is flanked on the lakeside by emerald-green
turf and a pebbly beach. A spandex-clad rollerblader is stopped in her tracks by a
gaggle of 25 geese ambling from one patch of grass to another. The boulevard’s
median is overgrown with dry, brown weeds and metre-tall grass, while near the road’s
edge an inconspicuous sign reads: Natural Regeneration for Goose Control. The rugged
landscaping is intended to keep geese from crossing the road and stopping traffic.
They will not feed north of the median without having a clear escape route to the lake.
Similar unkempt landscapes are cropping up around the region.
In Markham, Brian Millar’s preferred option is "The Controller," a red metal
tool box that contains a gun and some unusual ammunition: bangers that sound like a
shotgun and screamers that sound like falling fireworks. Also inside is a Canadian
Wildlife Service permit to use them to scare Canada geese. As co-ordinator of Markham’s
civic centre, one of Millar’s duties has been to get rid of the 1,500 geese that
once fought for paddling room on the property’s artificial pond. The centre opened
in 1990 in the town’s heavily landscaped business park, and since then Millar
has worked relentlessly to expel geese. He planted rose bushes to discourage nesting,
rigged up nets over nest sites, installed an alarm that sent out panic bird cries (the
geese got used to them). He hired falconers with trained hawks and eagles to chase
the geese away. He placed dead-goose decoys around the pond to signal imminent danger.
He sprayed a chemical that changed the taste of grass. He even anchored four inflatable
alligators to the bottom of the pond. "That didn’t work one iota," he says. "One
[goose] pecked an alligator’s back and it sank."
Last spring, Millar began using the screamers "to get the birds’ attention" and
the bangers to "give the impression there are hunters around." His patient struggle
was rewarded: the pond is now goose-free. Millar speculates they have moved to the
nearby Rouge River valley. "They have told their friends that the civic centre pond
is not a good place to be anymore," he says.
Relocation programs were once seen as the ideal solution for nuisance wildlife, but
experience has shown their limitations. Since 1994, Mississauga has sent about 600
geese to the Mountsberg Conservation Area near Guelph, Ont. As creatures of habit,
many of the transplanted geese found their way back to their Mississauga birthplace.
And Mountsberg, like most other North American relocation sites, is now full. Indeed,
many are overpopulated.
Along with attempts to evict geese from their urban roosts, wildlife managers are
also trying to control the population explosion. Scientists in the United States have
experimented with goose vasectomies. But the procedure costs $140 per bird and takes
15 minutes, making sterilization impractical for large populations. Another approach
to population control is slathering the four to six large, off-white eggs produced
each year with mineral oil, which suffocates the embryos. The Canadian Wildlife Service
recently granted Toronto a blanket permit for widespread egg oiling this spring. One
study has estimated that more than 72 percent of eggs must be oiled to make a dent
in the population — a challenging prospect with nests hidden in every corner
of the city.
After exhausting an array of management tools, a number of American cities have turned
to one effective but controversial option: culling. In recent years, thousands of geese
have been rounded up and shipped to slaughterhouses. In St. Paul, Minn., for example,
the meat was donated to food banks and shelters since it can’t be sold — a
stipulation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act that protects Canada geese from overhunting
in Canada and the United States. In the spring of 1997, Mississauga city council applied
for a Canadian Wildlife Service cull permit. The animal rights group Animal Alliance
of Canada immediately vowed to challenge the Canadian Wildlife Service in court on
the grounds that granting the permit would not comply with the Migratory Bird Act which
allows culls only when geese are "seriously injurious," that is, posing serious health
or environmental problems. Animal Alliance contended no such problems existed.
The possibility of being tied up in court during the short moulting period — when
geese shed their feathers and can’t fly — left the city scrambling for
yet another alternative. A last-minute offer to take the unwanted geese came from New
Brunswick, which wanted to bolster its populations of resident breeders. Within two
days, 2,000 geese were on their way. All but two survived the trip. Liz White, a director
of Animal Alliance, does not believe the move was the best alternative either. "Relocation
used to be the big issue, but we’ve relocated thousands of birds and it hasn’t
changed a thing," she says. Numbers can be better reduced by altering the "enticing
dinner plates" that attract geese to urban areas, she says.
Mississauga’s Mark Hillis says moving the 2,000 geese to New Brunswick did prove
to be of little use. He says the parks that were relatively clear last fall had more
overwintering geese than ever. And it was certainly the last relocation of its kind.
The environment ministry in New Brunswick reports that the Mississauga geese have more
than adequately satisfied the province’s needs. The geese even managed to generate
some complaints similar to those heard in Toronto.
Each goose-prone municipality in the Toronto area has now been evaluated by a multi-agency
committee spearheaded by the Waterfront Regeneration Trust, an organization formed
to help restore Lake Ontario’s Canadian shores. In March 1997, the committee
published a management strategy report that recommended community-based plans focusing
on public education, habitat modification and goose population management. The trust
is also bringing together representatives from municipalities, regions, conservation
authorities, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and the Canadian Wildlife Service
to formalize a regional goose control committee. "Geese have no respect for boundaries,
so [the solutions] have to be a co-ordinated, concentrated effort," says the trust’s
Ultimately, public attitudes are the crux of the overpopulation issue. Liz White says
Toronto does not have a goose problem — the issue is simply one of "esthetics
and tolerance." Many wildlife biologists agree. "This is a people problem, not an animal
problem," says Jim Leafloor, a provincial waterfowl biologist in Cochrane, Ont. "If
you have 50,000 geese in Toronto, it is a problem. But if you put the same number of
geese on James Bay, it’s not a problem at all."
"Some people are saying they’ll never come back to our parks because they’re
not clean," says John Howard of Toronto Parks and Recreation Services. "It is also
becoming a liability issue with people slipping in [goose droppings]." Geese can also
be aggressive, particularly during nesting season. Howard recalls a report of a terrier-sized
dog killed by "being thrown up in the air like a mouse" by a male Canada goose on Toronto
Island in 1991. Most predators in the area, such as foxes, will not even stalk the
Making his way through Rouge Beach Park in Scarborough, Howard cringes as he sees
a young boy, at his mother’s urging, approaching some geese with a piece of bread
on his outstretched hand. Not 50 metres away is a sign: PLEASE don’t feed the
birds. "They always walk right by the signs," Howard says, noting a child was bitten
by a goose here last year. Day-old doughnuts and loaves of bread are scattered in parks
daily — against municipal by-laws — but no one has charged the well-meaning
bird-lovers. “We’re fighting the habits of people that aren’t going
to change overnight,” he says.
Wildlife and park managers don’t expect a quick fix to the overpopulation. Some
even estimate it will be a decade before the goose load is noticeably lightened. Meanwhile,
Torontonians like Shirley Bond must learn to patiently co-exist — elbow to wing — with
their annoying neighbours.
See also: Resident maximas and migrating interiors
(This article first appeared in Canadian Geographic magazine, May/June
1998. It may not be reproduced without written permission from Canadian