Canada Geese in Massachusetts
Perhaps no sound more clearly evokes an image of wildness than the honking of migrating geese. Canada geese have passed through Massachusetts on their journeys to and from their arctic breeding grounds for centuries. Prior to the 1930's, it was unusual for geese to nest here, yet today in Massachusetts you can find Canada geese any time of the year. In fact, in some areas, people feel that there are too many geese! Why the change?
Canada geese are large birds, averaging 10-14 pounds. Among waterfowl (ducks, geese & swans) of North America, Canada geese are second only to swans in size. Their long black neck and white cheek markings are particularly distinctive.
The Canada goose is a grazer. Geese form permanent pair bonds, but if one bird dies, the other will seek a new mate in the next breeding season. Most Canada geese don't begin nesting until they are three years old. Adult females lay 4-6 eggs in a clutch. If the clutch is destroyed, geese generally don't re-nest, but with two large birds guarding a nest, the chances of success are good. Usually by the time the young are 4-6 weeks old, the broods begin gathering in large flocks. Non-breeders and yearlings form separate flocks. By fall, they all gather into one large flock for the winter.
In Massachusetts, there are several different populations of Canada geese. The first two populations (groups) are the migratory populations which pass through in the spring and fall. Massachusetts is one of many resting areas for these migrating birds.
One population called the Atlantic Population (AP) (Branta canadensis interior)breeds in northern Quebec on the Hudson Bay and Ungava Bay coasts with a few birds nesting in interior portions of the Ungava Penninsula. These birds tend to migrate south along the Hudson River and are seen in western Massachusetts. These birds begin moving through Massachusetts in October and have largely passed through by November. Few of these birds winter in Massachusetts, but biologists believe that a few hundred overwinter on the Connecticut River by the Coolidge bridge in Northampton.
The second migrant population is the North Atlantic Population (NAP), largely Branta canadensis canadensis. This group of geese nests in Labrador and Newfoundland and migrates later, generally not leaving their nesting grounds until November and December, though some may gather in a larger group on Prince Edward Island before moving south. This is a maritime population which normally stays within 10 miles of the coast. These birds winter primarily in southern New England and Long Island, NY but occur as far south as New Jersey. A significant portion of geese wintering in Buzzards Bay and along Cape Cod are NAP birds. The number of NAP geese wintering inland varies with the winter snow conditions. If we have extensive snow cover in December, these geese continue to move south to the coast but if December is open some of these geese will overwinter with our resident geese.
The third groups is the resident population: descendants of captive geese used by waterfowl hunters (and also waterfowl breeders.) When live decoys were outlawed in the 1930s, many captive birds were liberated. With no pattern of migration, these geese began nesting. Lawns at houses, golf courses and mowed parks, well-watered, fertilized and bordering water, provided an excellent source of food. In suburban areas, there were few predators. The habitat for grazers was perfect.
In the 1960s and early '70s a "translocation" project carried out by MassWildlife involved moving birds from the coast into central and western Massachusetts to the applause of both hunters and non-hunters. No one imagined the population explosion which followed. With the above factors and town-imposed restrictions on hunting, resident goose flocks grew. In 1983, MassWildlife biologists estimated 10-12,000 of the geese were probably year-round residents. By 1997, survey estimated 38,000 geese statewide. As goose numbers increased, so did problems, especially with goose droppings (poop). Canada geese produce from half pound to a pound and half of droppings per day. Now geese are on golf courses, in gardens, over shellfish beds, on lawns, beaches, water supplies and cranberry bogs. What can be done?
The problem is not the presence of geese but the number of geese. Here are a few suggestions to prevent goose grief, but keep in mind that it takes persistence and a combination of tactics to keep geese from becoming pests:
STOP FEEDING--Geese concentrate wherever people feed them. Feeding encourages birds to stay in areas where they normally wouldn't and build up flock sizes the habitat can't support. The food you feed ducks and geese is not their proper diet. Feeding makes geese less wary of people and lowers natural winter mortality. You may enjoy feeding ducks and geese, but it is in the birds' best interest if you don't.
Some parks have erected signs with "friendly" messages to discourage feeding of geese (and ducks) and have seen a significant drop in feeding. One example of possible text to use: "Keep Wild Things Wild! Please don't feed the ducks and geese. This can cause the birds to lose their natual fear of people and impact their natural ability to survive on their own."
SCARE TACTICS--Putting out flags, tying aluminum pie plates along strings, using scarecrows all may help keep geese away from an area until they learn these objects pose no threat. Full bodied swan or coyote decoys sometimes work because geese perceive the decoys as threats. It's important to move decoys periodically or the geese will realize the decoys aren't real. For an active approach, try walking up to the birds then flapping a tablecloth. Trained dogs are especially effective but need to be used on a long term basis. Costs are a consideration when "hiring" a dog and handler. Loud noises may also work, but geese can adapt to noise. If geese have to spend too much energy avoiding harassment to eat and rest properly, they will go elsewhere.
BARRIERS- Geese tend to walk to their feeding site from water, and rarely fly up over a fence, especially during the "molting" period (mid-June through mid-July) when they cannot fly. A 3-foot chicken wire fence is an effective barrier. Geese like to be able to see around them, which is why you don't see them in the woods or in tall grass fields. Therefore, planting a hedge or leaving a wide swatch of uncut weeds between water and mowed grass creates a natural, low maintenance barrier.
DISRUPTING REPRODUCTION- Some people inquire about destroying or taking eggs from goose nests--this only results in the geese to continue to lay eggs, replacing the broken or missing eggs. It is also illegal to destroy eggs of most bird species, including Canada geese. In some cases, egg addling (shaking) or oiling can stabilize flock size, but these efforts are time consuming and mostly appropriate only for urban areas with concentrated nesting sites. Nests can be difficult to find, even in the most urban areas. Studies show that a flock would fall to only 75% of it's original size in 10 years if 95% of eggs were addled or oiled annually. Permits are needed to engage in this activity.
HUNTlNG- Even when geese are discouraged by the above tactics, they still move elsewhere, bringing problems to that area. To achieve a reasonable comfort level for both geese and people, the number of geese must be reduced. Studies by biologists show that the most efficient way to reduce the size of a flock is to increase mortality of adult geese--resulting in fewer birds laying eggs and adding fewe goslings to the population. Geese have been hunted in New England for centuries and their tasty meat is prized by many. All migratory birds, including Canada geese, are protected by an international migratory bird treaty. Hunting migratory birds is allowed; but timing of the season, its length, the number of birds that can be taken, and the hunting methods are strictly regulated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. States may add restrictions and towns sometimes impose additional bylaws. When local ordinances become so restrictive that they effectively prohibit hunting, towns inadvertently create "sanctuaries" for geese, and the buildup of flocks can cause problems. In 1995, the Massachusetts Fisheries & Wildlife Board instituted special "early" and "late" goose seasons designed to reduce the resident goose population. Data suggested that 25% of the resident goose population was harvested, but recent studies indicate that for populations to be controlled, at least 30-35% need to be harvested annually.
There are creative solutions to allow for hunting geese, even in towns with restrictions. Golf clubs and race tracks invite waterfowlers on to their grounds during hunting season at designated hours. Fire and police departments use their networks to find waterfowl hunters to hunt municipal properties and reservoirs within certain guidelines beyond state and federal laws. Landowners open their lands to hunters willing to abide by any restrictions he or she may impose. Property owners with goose problems can contact local sportsmen's clubs, municipal departments or their state Environmental Police Officer to find potential sportsmen and women who hunt waterfowl.