Canada geese are a big, unique-looking and some say downright pretty bird. But they likely won't be winning any popularity contests in Michigan anytime soon.
The messy birds tend to enjoy the same types of areas humans like to create for themselves — lush lawns, parks, beaches, golf courses and scenic mill ponds in the middle of small towns.
And when they find a nice area, they like to stay. There, they eat, poop, swim, repeat. Then they make baby Canada geese to do more of the same.
Their growing numbers are causing increasing conflicts in Michigan, where they have gone from nearly extinct to an overpopulated nuisance, fouling waterways and leaving piles of green droppings everywhere you step.
"You've got a lot of golf courses, a lot of cemeteries; anywhere you have well-manicured grass, that's where they are going to be," said Eric McGhee, a waterfowl hunter from Troy who represents southeast Michigan on the state's Citizen Waterfowl Advisory Committee. The group provides the DNR with feedback on existing and proposed waterfowl regulations and wetlands management issues.
"Why would a goose leave a golf course, where they can eat, and swim and have no predators, including people and coyotes?"
Canada goose numbers were so small in the 20th Century as a result of over-hunting that efforts were made to introduce the birds in Michigan. From a population of about 9,000 birds in 1970, the state is now home to more than 300,000 Canada geese — and 78% or more of those birds live in the more heavily populated southern part of the state, according to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
Canada goose complaints tend to fall into three categories, McGhee said.
Complaint category 1: Aggressive birds.
"People have them around their offices, and, especially in the springtime, when they are mating and laying eggs, that's when you get a lot of people saying they are being harassed by the geese," he said. "They're being chased by them; they're having to fight them off."
Complaint category 2: The pooping.
An adult Canada goose poops about 2 pounds, per bird, per day. And we're not talking little, dainty, chickadee poop here. It can contribute to beach closings like those that occur with frequency on Lake St. Clair because of high E. coli bacteria concentrations in shoreline waters.
Brian Borbot of Grand Rapids has almost given up on using Riverside Park, a large park in the city along the Grand River that he has used and enjoyed almost all of his life. The reason, he said, is all of the Canada geese, and all of the land mines they are leaving behind.
"There are soccer fields and Little League fields down here that they feed on," he said. "Kids and adults play on these fields, and everywhere you look, it's flattened-out green piles. It's not good for the ponds there, and it's not good for the people.
"It's been going on for five or six years at least, and it's gotten progressively worse."
Complaint category 3: Impacts to farmers.
Canada geese love grain crops such as corn, wheat and soybeans. They'll double-dip on farmers' crops, eating the plants just as they emerge, then coming back when the corn, grain or bean is mature.
"They'll come and feast all day on your crops," McGhee said. "They'll eat a couple of acres of crop, go sleep it off, and come back the next day to do it again."
As the state of Michigan moves toward considering a sandhill crane hunt, some have asked why not hunt these ubiquitous Canada geese instead? We already do, McGhee said.
Michigan has an early hunting season for Canada geese that runs the entire month of September, and they can be hunted during general waterfowl hunting seasons from October into December. Canada goose-hunting is then extended to mid-February in certain management zones in southern Michigan.
The hunt doesn't seem to be as popular as duck hunting, however, McGhee said.
"We have such a long goose season," he said. "If I was to get two geese every time I went out, I'm going to have a freezer full of goose meat. It's easier with ducks; they're smaller — a pound, pound-and-a-half of meat. What am I going to do with 40 or 50 pounds of goose meat every year?"
The Canada geese are getting wise to this method of keeping their numbers down, anyway.
University of Illinois ornithologist Mike Ward researched why Canada geese, a migratory bird that typically heads south to warmer climates for the winter, were instead staying over the winter in more northern, urban areas than they had before.
"Twenty years ago, there wouldn't have been many geese over-wintering in southern Illinois, Michigan and northern Indiana. But they are now," he said. "While our winters are getting a little milder, they're not that much milder for a bird that has to eat grass."
Ward presumed the geese would fly to nearby agricultural fields during the day; then come back to roost in urban areas of Chicago. But, in tracking the birds, they weren't making those trips to farmers' fields outside the city in the fall and start of winter. That time period happens to be when Canada goose hunting season is going on throughout the Midwest.
"What we think is going on is, they are staying farther north and in urban areas to avoid hunters," he said.
One of the areas around Chicago where this is happening is near Midway Airport, presenting "real, potential problems with collisions" between birds and aircraft, Ward said.Ask Chesley (Sully) Sullenberger how problematic that can be. Sullenberger is the now-retired U.S. Airways pilot who safety landed his passenger jet in the waters of the Hudson River in Manhattan after the aircraft was disabled by a flock of Canada geese immediately after takeoff in 2009.
The urban geese are getting by through not moving around much, conserving energy, staying on roofs and railroad stockyards. Ward said. His research is now turning to the most effective ways to get them moving, expending energy, forcing them to head south or freeze.
"Airports will chase them around with remote-control cars, lasers," he said. "Our research going on right now is to see which harassment technique works best."
In areas of Michigan where Canada geese are particularly an issue, including Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties, the DNR allows landowners to obtain free permits to destroy the birds' nests and eggs, encouraging their migration to less-populated northern areas.
Chris Compton, 45, of Holy and founder of Goose Busters, a business that removes and relocates about 6,000 geese per year to less-populated areas, he said.Compton works with his 3-year-old border collie Ellee, Monday Nov. 6, 2017 at Fieldstone Golf Club in Auburn Hills. Ellee scares off the Canada geese from commercial, residential, governmental, school, church and other properties. (Photo: Mandi Wright, Detroit Free Press)
In June and July, Canada geese are molting, or shedding and replacing feathers, and cannot fly, making it a good time to gather birds and relocate them. Chris Compton's Holly-based Goose Busters business removes and relocates about 6,000 geese per year to less-populated areas, he said.
The DNR, however, states that relocation can be less than effective, unless the attractive habitat the geese are leaving is somehow modified, as they are instinctively drawn to previous breeding sites.
Compton also uses border collies to chase off Canada geese, making them less comfortable.
Ellee (far left), a 3-year-old border collie, scares off the Canada geese from Fieldstone Golf Club in Auburn Hills on Monday Nov. 6, 2017. Elle works for Chris Compton's Holly-based Goose Busters business which removes and relocates geese. (Photo: Mandi Wright, Detroit Free Press)
"We're going out to close to 90 places a day now, keeping them off grounds for people — commercial businesses, residences, a couple of municipalities, some churches, schools."
McGhee sees a solution in getting more people into hunting.
"The waterfowl hunting sport is in decline now," he said. "If we could teach the younger hunters it's OK to go out and manage this problem, it would help. And it is a problem; despite the hunters, the bag limits and what the state is doing to harvest and conserve these birds."
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