What’s good for the goose … is no longer the question
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 07/05/2022 (325 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
THE comeback of Canada geese from near-extinction has been remarkably successful. In fact, it’s been too successful.
In an appropriate environment, geese are magnificant birds. To watch them from a site such as Oak Hammock Marsh is to marvel at their natural beauty as they ride the wind currents in V-shaped formation, outstretched necks honking their throaty exclamations.
In Winnipeg, though, they’ve become urban pests, soiling parks and playgrounds with excrement, hissing aggressively at people who walk near their nests and creating a traffic hazard as they plod obliviously on roads.
I generally believe we should co-exist peacefully with wildlife including geese, live and let live. The exception is when wildlife poses a danger.
Until now, urban geese didn’t seem like a substantial danger, although they can certainly be irritating as they damage the lawns of homeowners, pollute ponds and squawk a non-stop cacaphony when they group together.
What’s made me reconsider whether geese in Winnipeg are dangerous is the new avian influenza strain H5N1, which officials say is highly pathogenic. Samples from two wild birds in Manitoba, a snow goose and a bald eagle, have already tested positive, and, alarmingly, a third case has been found in a commercial poultry flock at a farm near Whitemouth.
How dangerous is it? Those of us who are not veterinary scientists look to the experts to gauge an appropriate level of worry about the possibility of the bird flu growing throughout Manitoba. The experts seem apprehensive.
Avian flu “is spreading in wild bird populations across the globe and presents a significant national concern as birds migrate to Canada,” the Canadian Food Inspection Agency announced April 23. The Wildlife Haven Rehabilitation Centre has urged Manitobans to remove bird feeders and bird baths from their yards.
The Manitoba government urged the owners of small flocks of birds to keep them indoors during the high-risk period of wild bird migration. City council, on the advice of the Winnipeg Humane Society, dropped a proposed pilot project to let homeowners raise chickens in their backyards.
This is where the geese come in, literally. A heightened fear of avian flu is the unwelcome baggage geese bring to Winnipeg in their annual migratory return, many of them coming from the U.S., where this strain of flu has already killed more than 24 million chickens and turkeys.
Without natural predators in Winnipeg, and protected from humans by a federal law, the geese strut around town like it’s their free range. This unchecked influx has meant some neighbourhoods with grassy spaces and water — especially those near retention ponds — are populated by geese to a point where the homeowners regard it as an infestation.
It hasn’t always been this way. Urban antagonism toward these birds is a marked change from the early 20th century, when extinction threatened. It must have been heartening to see the first few geese return to Winnipeg back then, but they have since reproduced at a prodigious rate.
An organization called Urban Goose Working Group estimates thousands of “resident” geese are in Winnipeg all summer, while between 50,000 and 120,000 geese alight in Winnipeg and surrounding areas at migratory times.
Perhaps concern about the spread of avian flu will be the tipping point that prompts the public to say enough is enough, and that geese don’t belong in a city. It’s understandable if people feel it’s time to rid Winnipeg of geese. But easier said than done.
Canada Geese are protected under the federal Migratory Birds Convention Act, which prevents killing, capturing, relocating or disturbing the geese or their feathers, nests or eggs.
The law allows certain exceptions, such as obtaining a permit to remove eggs. The University of Manitoba tried it in 2017, when it got the required permit and hired a contractor to destroy the nests and eggs on U of M property. Workers armed with bats and umbrellas arrived on campus to start cracking eggs, much to the alarm of geese-loving students, whose protests caused the university to stop the attempted cull.
Other places have also tried noisemakers, scarecrows, chemical repellents, bird-chasing dogs such as border collies, and stretching netting over retention ponds.
These makeshift methods are, at best, short-term fixes. The long-term solution is to revoke the legal protection enjoyed by geese. The law was updated in 1994 to protect geese as an endangered species and it achieved its purpose, but it’s no longer needed.
If we do nothing, it will get much worse, as arithmetic shows. A female goose produces average clutch sizes of six goslings a year during a 12-year reproductive span.
Geese have had the run of the city long enough. The law should be updated to allow citizens humane ways to push these geese into the wilderness, where they belong.
Carl DeGurse is a member of the Free Press editorial board.
Senior copy editor
Carl DeGurse’s role at the Free Press is a matter of opinion. A lot of opinions.