Air Date: Week of August 13, 1999
At the turn of the century, Canada Geese were extremely rare. But today they're thriving, to the point of being considered a nuisance. As Living On Earth’s Terry FitzPatrick reports from Seattle, some of the extraordinary steps which officials take to control the birds' population raise important questions about the value people place on urban wildlife.
CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood, with an encore edition of Living on Earth. At the turn of the century, Canada geese were extremely rare here in the United States, but today just look around. They're everywhere, thriving even in the middle of most US cities. In fact, geese are so common they're considered a nuisance. Some city officials are taking extraordinary steps to control the bird's population. As Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick reports from Seattle, it all raises important questions about the value people place on urban wildlife.
(A golf club hits a ball)
FITZPATRICK: It's a sunny afternoon at Seattle's Broadmoor Country Club. As golfers practice their tee shots, a pair of geese is looking to land.
(Golf clubs hitting balls backdropped by honking geese)
FITZPATRICK: It's time for the Geese Police.
KALNOSKI: Okay, boys, you ready? (A dog grunts) Yeah...
FITZPATRICK: Lynn Kalnoski unloads 2 sheep-herding dogs, whose mission in life is to scare geese away. Ms. Kalnoski says the dogs are trained to act like wolves, with one exception. They never bite.
KALNOSKI: The geese have no idea they're perfectly safe, they think my dogs are going to put them on the barbecue. In the goose's mind I make an area a high predation area.
(Whistles to dogs)
FITZPATRICK: Dog patrols are becoming more common as the number of urban geese continues to rise. With large grassy fields and open waterfront parks, cities provide a perfect environment for the birds. There are no natural predators or hunters to keep them in check. Harassment doesn't control the population, but causes the birds to shy away from areas where people don't want them.
(Footfalls; Kalnoski whistles)
FITZPATRICK: Up by the 17th green Ms. Kalnoski spots the pair of geese and orders her dogs into action.
KALNOSKI: Look, look. Get.
FITZPATRICK: The dogs dart away with incredible speed. (Kalnoski whistles) And through special whistle commands, Ms. Kalnoski instructs them to attack in a sweeping, circular pattern. (More whistles; honking geese) Just as the dogs reach the geese, the birds scramble into the air. It's over in seconds and the dogs are recalled.
(More honking, more whistles; panting dogs return.)
KALNOSKI: Yeah, boy. There you go, guys. There you go.
FITZPATRICK: The Geese Police patrol golf courses, private estates, and suburban lakefront parks because of the damage geese inflict on landscaping.
(Honking geese and splashing water)
FITZPATRICK: Mark Johnston is Parks Manager in Kirkland, Washington.
JOHNSTON: The geese will come down and they love manicured lawns. They eat the lawns and they will continue eating the lawns all the way down to dirt. They destroy lawns.
FITZPATRICK: Before dogs began patrolling, Mr. Johnston says his lakefront was overrun by geese. Their droppings transformed the beach into a minefield of manure.
JOHNSTON: Last year there were times where there was 150 to 175 birds here at this park. Each bird can produce 3 pounds of material a day. That is a tremendous quantity of material left. It wasn't fun to be at the beach. There are also problems with the possibility of health hazards in the water.
FITZPATRICK: The health risks include parasites that cause swimmers to get itchy skin, and a nutrient-rich aquatic environment where dangerous bacteria can blossom.
FITZPATRICK: There are safety concerns as well. Aggressive geese have attacked children and at airports geese get in the way of planes. In 1995 a military jet crashed in Alaska after hitting a flock during takeoff. (Honking geese) Twenty-four people were killed.
FITZPATRICK: Ironically, this seeming plague of geese was created by well- intentioned wildlife agencies. In the 1940s they began to reintroduce geese in rural areas to bring them back from the brink of extinction and provide opportunities for hunters.
FITZPATRICK: While they were at it, biologists placed geese in cities to grace the parks of urban America. Jim Cooper is a waterfowl biologist at the University of Minnesota.
COOPER: What folks in those days, and I'm one of them, didn't realize, because we had so few Canada geese around anyway, was that they were beautifully suited to the cities. It's far more adaptable and far more able to survive in situations that we couldn't imagine.
FITZPATRICK: In many American cities, the geese have become year-round residents, distinct from the flocks who nest in Canada each summer and fly to the United States for the winter. Dr. Cooper says that's because a goose migrates only if it has to.
COOPER: If the water that it uses for roosting at night and the food that it forages on in late fall and winter is unavailable, either through snow cover and ice and snow, the birds will migrate. But as long as their food and roosting needs are met, they will stay as close to their breeding site as possible.
FITZPATRICK: The artificial introduction of geese has created large populations of resident birds in the US. There's at least two million of them right now, and their numbers are growing fast. In areas where it's feasible, special hunting seasons have been established to control the resident birds. More than 300,000 are shot every year. The quandary is what to do in cities where you can shoo the geese away but can't shoot them.
(A boat engine starts)
YOUNG: Jerry, I think we have one to use last time...
FITZPATRICK: That's where Jeff Young and Jerry May come in.
FITZPATRICK: They're the grim reapers of the wildlife world, employed by a special unit of the US Department of Agriculture.
YOUNG: This a new one, Jerry?
FITZPATRICK: They spend every spring in a small motorboat raiding goose nests.
(Geese honking; crunching through foliage)
FITZPATRICK: Urban geese will nest just about anywhere, under bridges or piers or in clusters of cattails along shore.
(Honking, crunching continue)
FITZPATRICK: Disturbing the birds can be dangerous. They're very large and unafraid of people.
(Honking, crunching continue)
FITZPATRICK: As Mr. Young nudges this female off her nest, the male beats his wings in a furious, diving attack.
YOUNG: Hold on. This guy's not happy.
FITZPATRICK: Mr. Young wards off the attack and uncovers the nest. About 2 feet wide, made of broken reeds and downy feathers.
YOUNG: So here's 4 eggs. They're warm and white, about the size of my palm.
FITZPATRICK: Mr. Young does not destroy the eggs. Instead he uses a garden sprayer to cover the eggs with corn oil.
YOUNG: It imposes a nonpenetrable layer to the oxygen molecules that are required by an embryo for development. By coating the eggs we are inducing that layer and the embryo cannot reach full development.
FITZPATRICK: Oiling the eggs is a more effective birth control technique than destroying them. Mr. May says the geese will spend their entire breeding season trying to hatch the coated eggs.
YOUNG: If you do any physical damage, you break them, remove them, they will re-nest. This way they just keep on sitting on the nest. They don't know any different. I've had them sitting on the same nest 40 days past the time they were supposed to hatch, and they're still sitting there.
FITZPATRICK: This team oils more than 1,000 eggs a year. It prevents the urban population from growing but does not reduce the number of birds already here. For that, officials have resorted to trapping and relocating tens of thousands of geese. In some regions they've simply slaughtered the birds and sent the meat to food kitchens; about 5,000 have been butchered nationwide in the past 3 years.
FITZPATRICK: Surprisingly, animal rights activists have endorsed the use of dog patrols and the poisoning of eggs. However, they say its wrong to kill living birds. The activists suggest cities try harder to prevent the geese from congregating in places where they'll pose a problem.
(A drill sounds)
FITZPATRICK: In Seattle, activists are addressing another factor that puts the geese in harm's way: handouts of food from bird lovers.
FITZPATRICK: The Progressive Animal Welfare Society is posting startling signs depicting a dead goose with its tongue hanging out.
BELL: It says if you're going to feed me, you may as well shoot me. So thanks for the bread, but I'd rather live.
FITZPATRICK: Stephanie Bell and Mitchell Fox have put dozens of these warnings in Seattle-area parks.
FOX: What we need to impart is that the animals end up paying with their lives for this seemingly innocuous activity. I think it's just kind of unfair to whack off a bunch of geese because we've trained them to be our pets.
FITZPATRICK: The conflict over geese is likely to intensify as wildlife managers move forward with plans to kill large numbers of birds in several cities. Animal activists are fighting in Federal court, contending the law allows only limited kills of specific problem birds. Both sides acknowledge geese can become a nuisance, but they stress it's illegal for the public to kill them or disturb their nests. That, they say, is a job best left to the Geese Police.
FITZPATRICK: For Living on Earth, I'm Terry FitzPatrick in Seattle.
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