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What’s good for the goose?

There will be no quick fix in the territorial wrangle between Canadians and Canada geese
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 in Mississauga.

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 Tony Wagner.

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 geese.

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 Geographic.)

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