Gaggles of Geese Give Up the Wild To Become Pests in Urban America

CANADA geese, the powerful flyers that have long been a majestic symbol of this nation's wilderness heritage, are shunning the wild and becoming squatters in cities across much of North America.

Unthreatened by hunters or other predators in their new urban and suburban habitat, the population of ''giant'' Canada geese is exploding to an estimated 1 million birds across the continent, wildlife officials say.

As recently as 40 years ago, the giant Canada goose -- a subspecies called Branta canadensis maxima -- was thought nearly extinct. Not anymore.

The 1969 rediscovery of a small group near a lake in Minnesota led to breeding and reintroduction efforts across North America. Efforts to save the subspecies have been successful. Apparently too successful.

''It has gone beyond our wildest expectations,'' says Rick Pratt of the Canadian Wildlife Service in Ottawa.

Gaggles of urbanized geese now hang out year-round in parks, golf courses, and condo complexes -- anywhere near water and food -- fouling the area with their droppings. They have worn out their welcome at yacht clubs, zoos, airports, even cemeteries.

David Broderick, the manager of Lakefront Promenade Park on the shores of Lake Ontario near Toronto, says the beauty of migrating Canada geese flying in tight V-formations used to send chills down his spine. But not anymore.

''We probably have 400 Canada geese at any given time right behind our building,'' Mr. Broderick says. ''These birds don't even bother to migrate anymore. They are taking over.''

Not all Canada geese are doing so well. Northern Canada geese populations that still migrate long distances are faltering because of various biological factors.

But don't tell that to Broderick. He and his crew are constantly cleaning up goose droppings on sidewalks and marina boardwalks. And because the geese eat grass, much of the 100-acre park has turned into a muddy field. Broderick is hardly alone in his frustration.

''I hear people these days calling them 'sky carp,' '' says C. Davison Ankney, a professor of zoology at the University of Western Ontario, in London, Ontario. ''It's a classic example of familiarity breeding contempt.''

That over-familiarity extends from southern Ontario as far south as Mississippi and from New England to the Pacific Northwest, waterfowl biologists and wildlife superintendents say.

''We've shipped lots of our birds out of state, to places like Oklahoma, Mississippi, Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee,'' says Jerry Martz, waterfowl specialist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources in East Lansing. ''But demand for them has dried up.... It used to be other states would call us and ask for some. Lately they've been saying, don't call us, we'll call you.''

Goose complaints across Ohio jumped from 95 in 1990 to 470 in 1993, with more expected this year, says Jack Weeks, a wetlands researcher with the Ohio Division of Wildlife in Oak Harbor, near Toledo. A January survey estimated that 93,000 Canada geese are living in Ohio.

In Michigan, Mr. Martz says the population has grown from 9,600 in 1969 to 194,000 last year.

Trying to control the populations is tricky. Hunting seasons are being staggered to cut into populations of the giant Canada goose but allow other migrant species to fly through. All Canada geese are protected by law in both Canada and the United States when out of season.

But hunting doesn't help much: The geese have learned they're safe in cities, where firearms can't be discharged. Other efforts have included spraying the eggs with mineral oil so they won't hatch and spraying lawns where the geese forage with a bitter extract from grapes.

Broderick, the park manager, has even tried decoys of fallen geese sprawled on the ground. ''It didn't work,'' he says. ''Within three hours, they were huddled around the decoy looking at it.''

Urbanites are clearly divided in their attitudes toward the regal birds. Many take their children to parks to feed the birds and write letters in their defense.

''Everybody likes to say, 'Oh golly, here's a pair on our neighborhood pond -- and they've got young ones,''' says John Bergquist, waterfowl biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources in Madison. ''Then a couple of years later, all of a sudden there are eight or nine pairs out there with 50 or 60 goslings up standing on your lawn.''

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