At Home in the City

By Joan McKee | February 2, 1998
From Missouri Conservationist: Feb 1998

When the Conservation Department launched a program more than 30 years ago to restore the nearly extinct giant Canada geese, they expected them to reappear in their original habitat-marshes and rural lakes.But geese have their own ideas and, as their numbers increased in the state, more and more of these migratory birds stopped and stayed at city lakes and parks, golf courses and lawn-rich subdivisions.

"Geese do better today in urban areas than they do in the wild," says Dave Graber, a Conservation Department wildlife biologist who studies geese. "An urban setting provides all the things geese need-safety, no hunting or little of it, lots of ponds and manicured lawns."

About 75 percent of the urban population enjoy having such majestic birds so close to home, but those who live in the middle of prime goose habitat sometimes have a different view.

For instance, a couple from a St. Louis suburb at first enjoyed watching a pair of geese swim in a nearby retaining pond in their subdivision. Then the geese chose a large flower pot on the couple's deck as a nesting spot.

"After the four eggs were laid, we couldn't go on the deck or in the back yard," the homeowner said. He and his wife couldn't open the curtains to their deck without the gander hissing at them through the glass. Because it is illegal to disturb the federally protected giant Canada geese when they are nesting, the couple had to wait until the geese moved back to the pond with their new goslings before they could use the deck.

The next year, armed with federal guidelines on how to deal with nuisance geese, the couple removed the pot and hung plastic streamers off the deck to scare the geese. At first this tactic seemed to work. The feathered pair ignored the deck but, instead, built their nest in the yard by the central air conditioning unit. This forced the couple to exit their house through the garage in the safety of their car until the goslings hatched about a month later.

If the couple attempted to venture into their yard, the hissing gander flew at them. "We had to have something in our hands to throw to get them to leave us alone if we went out of the house," the distraught homeowner said. "Two liter plastic bottles worked the best."

Before long the yard was littered with the empty bottles. The couple had to postpone repairs to their roof, couldn't get the air conditioner serviced and had to wait to use the built-in barbecue pit until the geese moved their family to the pond.

An isolated incident? Not really. Complaints from home and business owners about urban geese have been on the rise for the past five years, especially in spring. Once eggs are laid in March, the geese defend the same area that only a few days ago they were willing to share. Watching a hissing, 12-pound gander with a 6-foot wingspan run full force toward you is probably a bit too much nature viewing for even the most ardent outdoor enthusiasts.

Geese also hit homeowners in another place where it hurts-on their well fertilized, closely cut grass. Highly valued by geese and homeowners alike, grass is the favorite urban food of the giant Canada geese. They may pull it up, roots and all, leaving behind bare, packed soil. Reseeding a lawn can be expensive, but imagine the despair of a St. Louis park manager after a flock of geese dined á la carte on $36,000 worth of new plants.

City-dwelling geese create other problems on suburban lawns. A goose, while feeding, will defecate every seven minutes, which adds up to about 1/4 pound a day of slick green piles on the lawn. Multiply that by the number of geese in a yard, and you can see why some people who once tried to attract these birds to their property can change their minds.

Once geese find an area they like, it's hard to get them to leave. Because they are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, giant Canada geese can't be killed without a hunting license or a special permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Hunting often is not an option in urban areas, and the special permits to destroy nuisance geese are difficult to obtain. To get one, you must prove that you have done everything possible to discourage geese from staying in the area. Some of the federally recommended methods of discouraging geese are listed below.

  • Don't feed geese, at least on purpose. Offering them bread, popcorn or other human foods will only entice them to your lawn and aren't good for the geese. These foods lack balanced nutrients, which goslings need to develop strong wings. Geese with deformed wings can't fly.
  • Federal guidelines allow people to harass nuisance geese, except when they are incubating eggs. You can't declare all-out war, but you may use the following: fireworks, gas exploders, firearms, pistol-launched whistle bombs, balloons, flags, reflective tape, swan or eagle decoys, spotlights and Canada goose distress tapes.
  • Don't forget to alert the police and your neighbors, or you may be explaining your tactics to a judge. Another note: If using firearms, make sure it is legal to discharge them within your city limits. Shoot in a safe direction and don't fire directly at the problem birds.
  • Hunt in season, if the law allows it. Although many urban and residential areas do not allow shooting firearms, some permit bow hunting.
  • Create physical barriers that obstruct the flightless goslings' path from the shore to the water. A low fence at the water's edge may discourage geese from nesting. A grid of monofilament line placed over a pond can keep geese from landing on the water.
  • If you try the above methods and the population of geese continues to grow, the federal government may issue you permits to treat eggs in a nest so they won't develop into goslings. This can be done by coating the eggs with oil or by shaking them. Completely removing the eggs doesn't work because the geese most likely will renest.

Shaking eggs isn't for the faint of heart, however. Bruce Manning, supervisor of water quality control for St. Louis County, is in charge of controlling the goose population at a water treatment plant. At 5 a.m. he arrives and dons his egg-shaking outfit-an industrial hard hat and safety glasses. He parks his car within 50 feet of the nest, in case he needs to make a hasty retreat.

Sometimes he is lucky, and the geese are off the nest. When they aren't, he brandishes his 8-foot piece of 1-inch PVC tube pipe with a large paper towel taped to the end. When the gander attacks, Manning holds the pipe under one arm like a joust and places the other end on the gander's chest, holding the bird at bay while he slips his other hand under the hissing, biting female and quickly grabs each egg and shakes it vigorously.

Is it worth it? Yes, says Manning. The same geese return each year, but they haven't reproduced for several years.

When confronted with the prospect of shaking eggs, many urban landowners quickly suggest relocation instead. But this solution doesn't work well with migratory birds that like where they live. "Before we started shaking eggs, we tried relocation when the birds were molting and couldn't fly," says Manning. But as soon as their feathers grew back, the adult birds returned.

To those who have braved hissing geese to shake eggs, the idea of keeping the eggs from being fertile seems like a good idea, but this method carries a high price. Neutering requires a surgical procedure from a veterinarian at a cost of more than $100 per gander. That doesn't include the cost and time involved to capture and transport the birds.

A little landscaping often proves to be the easiest and cheapest solution. If you let the grass grow a little taller, add some shrubs and trees and put up a few short fences around ponds, most, if not all, geese will move to areas they consider safer, which might be a nearby golf course.

The problem at golf courses is more complex because a good golf course is a giant Canada goose paradise. "Golf courses unwittingly provide some of the best goose habitat," Graber says.

The short, well-cared-for succulent grass is high in nitrogen and protein and low in fiber-exactly as the geese like it. The lack of shrubs and trees allows geese to escape to the pond before a predator can get close, and sand traps provide grit to help the geese digest their food.

At first, members of Columbia Country Club in the southern part of Columbia were in favor of the geese, says Stewart Bigelow, the club manager. "But when they started tracking in goose droppings on their shoes, then the geese weren't so cute." Thanks to a combination of treating eggs, erecting electric fences around the ponds and harassing birds, tÒP¿ué­er has any ntËng birds, although a few migratory ones still drop in during the fall.

"We also hunt them with bows when it is legal," Bigelow says. "No one has taken one, but the harassment helps." Other managers agree that birds exposed to hunting are more likely to respond to other harassment techniques after a hunting season.

Some groups in Minnesota worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to get special permits to round up urban geese in areas where they were creating problems and donated the meat to food banks. The program proved successful up north, and Missouri food banks have expressed interest in receiving goose meat to distribute to the poor. As a result, the Missouri Department of Conservation is considering a similar plan.

Geese are among the top five animal species people like to watch, and having them in an urban area allows many more people to enjoy them, Graber says. "Our objective is not to eliminate them from urban areas, but to manage them so they can remain wild and to keep people who live near them safe and happy."

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Assistant Editor - Charlotte Overby
Managing Editor - Jim Auckley
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
Designer - Tracy Ritter
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Composition - Libby Bode Block
Circulation - Bertha Bainer