Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Saving eggs a wild goose chase

Outraged city folk wrong to question practice

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At the height of autumn migration, in the middle of September, about 121,000 Canada geese will be waddling and flapping around Winnipeg.

That works out to roughly one goose for every six humans who live within the confines of this city. But unlike Winnipeg's human beings, the vast majority of our geese are merely passing through.

City of Winnipeg naturalist Rodney Penner says the number of Canada geese that spend spring and summer in this city is a fraction of the fall migration count. The resident population, based on counts at dozens of locations where the birds are most likely congregate, is no less than 3,000 geese and goslings.

That number is nonetheless sufficient to cover parks and paths with guano, overfertilize ponds with nutrients and create hazards for both cars on city streets and planes at Richardson International Airport.

The Canada goose, only 60 years ago the subject of continent-wide population-recovery efforts, has become an urban pest. Winnipeg, like many North American cities, has never been home to so many Canada geese, which thrive especially well in a landscape of manicured lawns and manufactured wetlands, generally free from the threat of natural predators.

"The habitat they find suitable, people also find suitable," explains Frank Baldwin, the game-bird manager for Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship's wildlife branch.

"Canada geese are definitely superabundant, more abundant than they've ever been," he continued. "One of the reasons we have so many geese here is we have a lot who nest here and produce their young, (on top of) migrants from all over the continent."

For a decade, Winnipeg has struggled to find a way to reduce the goose population. Officials considered and rejected hunting, trapping and poisoning the birds, mainly because there's no practical way to engage in any of those methods without killing or maiming people, pets and other wild animals.

The city considered stringing nets across retention ponds to prevent geese from landing, annoying the birds with noisemakers and flagging tape and scaring them away with coyote and owl decoys.

"The urban geese, they got used to this stuff right away," Penner said. "It didn't really affect them too much."

The city is trying to shoo geese away from retention ponds by inoculating test plots of grasses with endophytic fungi, organisms that turn normally tasty plants such as fescue into something that makes the birds very queasy, Penner said.

But the most elegant solution of all is a four-year effort by the intergovernmental Urban Goose Working Group, which simply collects Canada goose eggs from nesting sites and destroys the future goslings. This labour-intensive work is conducted under the auspices of a federal permit because it's illegal to disturb migratory waterfowl nests.

Goose-egg removal harms nothing and no one. It could not possibly eradicate the Canada goose from Winnipeg because it has no effect on anything other than a segment of the resident population.

Yet enough Winnipeggers are upset by destruction of the unborn goose-child to create and sign a petition against the practice, ostensibly because they see it as a crime against nature.

This is misguided. There's nothing natural about a skyrocketing goose population in a human-altered landscape with few predators.

Ecologically, protesting an effort to reduce Winnipeg's Canada goose population is akin to protesting efforts to combat the spread of bedbugs, another species that has adapted unusually well to the urban environment. We'll never eradicate either species from the city, though only Canada geese -- not bedbugs -- have been known to harm people, mainly by causing traffic accidents.

Thanks to an idealized, Disneyfied view of nature, all cute animals are sacrosanct to some. But the Canada goose is exploiting a built environment.

True animal lovers should let the Urban Goose Working Group do its job. It's not only the humane thing to do, but the environmentally responsible move.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 29, 2014 A4


Updated on Thursday, May 29, 2014 at 6:23 AM CDT: Replaces photo

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott and the winner of the 2014 Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award.

Bartley’s work has also appeared on CBC Radio and Citytv as well as in publications such as The Guardian, explore magazine and National Geographic Traveler. He sits on the board of PEN Canada, which promotes freedom of expression.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives

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