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Goose proliferation comes home to roost PDF Print E-mail
Written by BILL SCHANEN IV   
Wednesday, 10 January 2018 19:33

Massive assemblage of geese in Port marina during deep freeze illustrates the explosion of the resident great Canada goose population in Wisconsin

    In the dead of the deep freeze last week, a cacophony of honking echoed from the Port Washington waterfront.
    Canada geese, numbering not in the dozens or hundreds but in the thousands, packed the Port Washington marina, blanketing the water and covering piers in a remarkable assemblage of waterfowl.
    “The marina was literally black with geese,” Harbormaster Dennis Cherny said.
    With inland lakes, rivers and creeks frozen, the geese were drawn to the open, sheltered water of the harbor, and while the congregation was a temporary symptom of the abnormally cold weather, it illustrates the phenomenon of the giant Canada goose, more than 100,000 of which now call Wisconsin home year-round.
    “I’m 71, and if you’re as old as I am you remember seeing geese flying in vees overhead in spring and fall, and that was the only time you saw them,” said Bill Mueller, director of the Western Great Lakes Bird and Bat Observatory, which is headquartered at the Forest Beach Migratory Preserve in the Town of Belgium.
    “Now you see geese here all the time. That’s a completely new phenomena.”
 BIRD LG   That phenomenon has a lot to do with the resident giant Canada goose, a subspecies of the Canada goose that is physically larger than its migratory Ontario nesting counterpart, and whose population in Wisconsin has exploded, growing from about 11,000 in the 1980s to an average of 140,000 in recent years, Trent Rohrer, Department of Natural Resources assistant migratory game bird ecologist, said.
    Among the reasons for the population boom are milder winters that make ample food accessible for resident Wisconsin geese even in the dead of winter. It seems that while many animal species are suffering from the effects of climate change, the Canada goose is thriving because of it, Mueller said.
     “Milder winters with less snow cover mean that waste grain — the grain in fields that doesn’t get harvested — is easier for the geese to feed on,” he said, adding that changing farming practices have also resulted in an ample supply of goose food.
    Climate change has also affected the migration of Ontario nesting geese, which breed along the Hudson Bay coast of Ontario, Canada, and migrate south in their trademark vees during fall. Unlike resident giant geese, these geese traditionally migrated through Wisconsin en route to Kentucky and Tennessee, sometimes as far south as Mississippi. But now with ample food farther north, significant numbers of them have been wintering in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin.
    “Why would you migrate if you didn’t need to?” Rohrer asked.
    Resident giant Canada geese have also contributed to the changing migratory behavior of Ontario nesting geese, which were once concentrated in a single location in the state, Rohrer said.
    “What used to happen was Ontario nesting geese congregated in Horicon. That was the only place they were seen in Wisconsin,” he said.
    But like living decoys, the giants Canada geese have drawn their migratory cousins to locations throughout southern Wisconsin.
    “The resident geese have essentially caused the migratory geese to spread out,” Rohrer said.
    The flock that overwhelmed the Port Washington marina last week was undoubtedly a mix of resident and migratory geese, united temporarily by the quest for open water, Rohrer said.
    Typically, Mueller said, geese will feed during the day, then return to the water for protection.
    “In winter, they go back and forth from farm fields to open water where predators can’t get at them as easily. It’s really a dynamic movement of birds,” he said. “The harbor, with its open water and protection provided by the breakwater, is a great place for waterfowl.”
    Recent single-digit and sub-zero temperatures slowed that movement down, although it did nothing to imperil these hardy birds.
    “Geese are so tough that they can tolerate the bitter cold without a problem,” Mueller said. “They think the lake feels like bath water.”
    Whether a burgeoning resident goose population is good or bad depends on your perspective, experts said.
    “You can look at it either way,” Rohrer said. “It’s a great time to be a hunter.
    “And in the days of the Dust Bowl, there were drastic decreases in the waterfowl populations. Now we’re seeing increasing populations, and I see that as a positive.”
    Mueller said a strong goose population is good news for those who study and watch birds, “but I can’t say there are no negatives, because there are.”
    Geese, which have proven extremely adept at adapting to urban settings and are notorious for fouling parks, beaches, golf courses and marina docks with their droppings, are also seen as a nuisance in need of population control.  
    “A lot of people like wildlife at a distance,” Mueller said. “But when it gets close, that’s a different story.”    

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