Stay at Home Geese
by Michael Hofferber. Copyright © 2001. All rights reserved.

A flock of Canada geese honking overhead captures my attention, and I think, "There's a sure sign of spring."

But wait! I've been watching that same flock, or one quite similar, fly overhead for most of the winter. And I remember seeing large gatherings of these birds on cornfield stubble, on golf courses and even some folks' lawns in January.

Idaho lies along the migration routes of many waterfowl, but most birds keep moving south toward the promise of warmer temperatures and open water. So, what are these Canada geese doing hanging around?

One of the most spectacular changes in the bird world in the last quarter of the 20th century, according to ornithologists, is the sudden appearance of "tame" Canada geese in suburban North America. In a recent Cornell Backyard Bird Count, the Canada Goose was the "most-seen bird" of 419 species reported in North America; more than 360,000 of them were counted. More common than sparrows! 

Have Canada geese stopped migrating? Have climate changes affected them, or is it people feeding them that makes them abandon their winter vacation plans?

Canada geese have become so prevalent and such a nuisance, with their three-inch-long droppings, that some people call them lawn carp or couch-potato geese. Many are now living year-round on diets of stale bread and cultivated grasses.

No, the Canada geese haven't stopped migrating, according to a report by Jack Hope in Audubon Magazine.

In the late 1890s and early 1900s, hunters in and near the continent's four migration flyways kept flocks of captive Canada geese as decoys to lure wild migrants into shotgun range. At first, most of the live decoys were injured birds nursed back to health but unable to fly,  but hunters soon began raising their own flocks, clipping feathers or amputating wing tips to keep the birds from flying away.

In 1935, the U.S. government outlawed live decoys and thousands of captive geese were released. They started showing up in town parks, and along populated lakes and streams, and the novelty of having these "wild" birds so tame prompted many people to feed and protect them. Even though they could fly, their migratory instincts had faded through generations of captive breeding. 

These Canada geese are accustomed to living in one area all year round. In the dead of winter, some might fly 50 or 100 miles to reach some open water, but mostly they just hang around and defecate.

Another factor is the propogation of the giant Canada Goose (Branta canadensis maxima) subspecies by government wildlife agencies during the 1960s after it was nearly wiped out by agricultural development and hunting. A "short-migrating" species to begin with, these captive bred birds lost the urge to travel and joined the ex-decoy geese as year-round residents.

The suburbanization of the North America landscape with millions of acres of brush lot, forest, and desert converted into the decorative ponds and cultivated grass of golf courses, corporate headquarters, school campuses, and residential lawns has only encouraged these geese to become more tame and less migratory. The sport hunting that had traditionally culled goose populations is largely prohibited in these places.

"I don’t think anybody ever saw the resident-goose problem coming," Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Bob Trost told the Audubon reporter.

"In the 1980s wildlife managers reckoned that hard-to-count resident geese probably totaled 15 to 20 percent of the number of migrants," Hope reports. "But by the early ’90s, after census methods improved, they were startled to learn that they had underestimated resident populations by two- or threefold. Today, nationwide, there are roughly two-thirds as many resident geese as migrants."

Most Canada geese continue to migrate north and south just as they did 20,000 years ago, flying in elegant V formations and rarely coming any closer than 1,000 feet overhead. But no longer do they signify spring.

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