Updated: Jul 6, 2018
Canadian geese, to be more specific. Most Midwesterners know them as parking lot trash birds, dog terrorizing barbarians, hissing chickens, or to be candid, the number one a-hole of the ornithological kingdom. They get a bad reputation for holding up traffic as the entire brood picks their slow, hesitant way across the busiest roads (but only when you’re already running late), hissing at the innocent passerby, or aggressively driving runners off course.
Here in Champaign-Urbana we have created the perfect environment for Canadian geese. With all the man-made lakes, agricultural fields, and grassy lawns it’s not surprising that we have been plagued with a large number of geese, but we’re not the only ones. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s spring 2017 survey there are 933,300 breeding Canadian geese, meaning the overall population has grown exponentially in North America since being put on the endangered species list in the early twentieth century. Being in such a densely goose populated area, it’s near impossible to avoid encounters with these chin-strapped monsters. One recent encounter I had at my wedding could have resulted in a battle of feathers and flower girls.
The ceremony was held at Crystal Lake Park in Urbana, an area notorious for its aggressive flocks. The wedding party and able-bodied family members crossed a foot bridge to snap some pre-wedding group photos, when we were met by a few territorial geese shaking their neck feathers and spreading their wings aggressively. Then, just like a scene straight out of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, thirty or forty more geese descended upon us from all corners. It was so unreal, they seemed to materialize out of nowhere! The mob of hissing and honking was the great wedding disaster I’d been anticipating, but hadn’t expected geese to be the culprits. Knowing the violence and strength that geese are capable of, I was ready to admit defeat and find a new, goose-less spot to take pictures. My brave new husband thought better of the situation and came up with a quick plan to intimidate these modern dinosaurs.
He instructed all his groomsmen to look big and spread their coat jackets out and hiss back in a hilarious display of dominance. They kicked out their legs in an awkward waddle-like strut and slowly moved towards them. To my great surprise it worked! The geese laid down their feathers, tucked back their wings, and shut up their beaks in a quick retreat and we continued as planned. In this battle of humans versus beastly birds, the geese were defeated. By no means do I recommend these tactics. They may have worked for us but Canadian geese are very territorial and unpredictable and are known to attack anything and everything that threatens them.
My humble abode happens to have a porch overlooking one of these aforementioned manmade lakes attracting large flocks that grow larger each spring. Since moving in, I’m embarrassed to admit how much time I’ve enjoyed observing these creatures that I just spent the last two paragraphs trash talking. I’ve come to recognize certain family groups and even a few (very few) individuals. I am by no means an expert on geese, but I do have an underused and overactive imagination and am very fond of creating little goose melodramas. Watching them follow around their babies reminds me of those parents at the park following their happy but nonsensical toddlers around, letting them experience, learn, and explore this bright new world they find themselves in. Geese are fierce and protective parents, and I’ve even seen them adopt (or chick-nap! Gasp!) mallard ducklings. Their parenting instincts seem to drive them to the edge and it amazes me how much they endure during nesting season.
Spring 2018 has been particularly rough with unseasonal snowstorms and generally miserable soggy weather, and I found myself having deep empathy for one nesting parent that was posted near the street I turned down several times a day. Being the creative I am, I decided to call her Sad Goose. Typically, a mating pair will stick close together and bare the load as a team. One will be the lookout while grazing nearby, while the other sits on the nest and takes care of the clutch. Sad Goose seemed to be without a mate, and sat on her nest day after day, month after month in the inclement weather. I really don’t know how she survived it if she truly was alone, but there never seemed to be anyone who had her back. I read somewhere that geese love blueberries, and I often thought about throwing some her way. I was afraid that if I did that it might attract some larger, meaner geese that would drive her away from the nest she so dutifully sat on. Even though mother nature may have already selected her to be a fox’s dinner, I continued to root for her.
So, I watched, day after day, voicing her imaginary exasperated opinions about the weather and that scoundrel of a goose that abandoned her.
About three months went by which seemed quite a long time to be sitting on a nest and I began to worry about Sad Goose. Other proud goose parents were already busy holding up traffic as they paraded their cute yellow hatchlings around and she continued to sit, slowly wasting away. The weather turned from cold and rainy to extremely hot and humid like a switch had been flipped, and yet Sad Goose sat unmoving. One particularly steamy Friday evening on my way home from work I did my routine Sad Goose check, but she was gone. Alas, maybe her eggs finally hatched, or maybe a coyote put her out of her misery. Regardless I felt a weird mixture of relief and sadness. I would never know what happened to her, but at least she had been finally released from that miserable prison of a nest.
The next morning, I didn’t have to work, but try as I might to sleep in, my body clock was set on my weekday schedule. Conceding that my day had started, I brewed some coffee and went out to the porch to watch the geese and sip my caffeine fix. I watched as a mating pair were teaching their large brood how to swim while fighting off some larger fish that nipped at their webbed feet.
Suddenly from around the corner came Sad Goose, and she was not alone! Toddling along beside her was tiny yellow gosling, probably about a week old. Joy flooded my heart and tears filled my eyes, because Sad Goose was now Happy Goose with a happy gosling (Disclaimer: At the time I was under a lot of pre-wedding planning stress and my emotions where high already). It made me think about my mom and how much she had to endure with me and my brothers and I felt so thankful and lucky that there are mothers in this world who will devote themselves so selflessly. When it comes to the geese it’s such a two-way street. I see the triumphs of Sad Goose but then her a-hole cousins try to ruin my wedding photos (to be fair I do realize we were invading their turf).
Canadian Geese are vastly overpopulated, aggressive nuisances, but just like us they work hard for their lives and as much as I dislike them I appreciate their struggle.
Whether you hate the geese, enjoy and empathize with them, or somewhere in between, it’s hard to ignore the issue of the growing population. The current solutions to knock down the population aren’t very nice to think about but the damaging effects of so many geese are a cause for concern. Aside from overrunning golf courses and parks, they create hazards for airplanes and car traffic, and some say the huge amounts of droppings are increasing coliform, or disease-causing bacteria, counts in the water supply. In a dream world we could just live capture enough individuals, spay or neuter them, and then release them to enjoy the rest of their goose lives, but that’s not plausible. They are hardy and adaptable so unfortunately this is one of those situations where human interference is once again necessary. For more information I recommend this article by Pat Leonard, where he discusses the difference between resident and migratory birds and their impact on North America.