Saturday, September 23, 2006

Encourage the geese to move on

Published in Newsday - Long Island, N.Y.

New federal rules make it easier to eliminate Canada geese at Long Island's parks, golf courses, farms and airports, either by killing them or destroying their eggs and nests. But these are drastic measures, and we should bear in mind that the geese are here in such great numbers because of human actions.

What is luring geese to Long Island? Lawns near water. As explosive development destroys our region's natural vegetation, native long grasses, wildflowers, shrubs, trees and vegetated banks have fallen to miles of mowed lawn - and little else. Mowed lawns near water and the open vistas they create play havoc with the Canada geese's migratory and nesting instincts, since protective parents seek clear, line-of-sight vistas that allow them to identify predators.

The local park/pond/playground combo, the golf course, the office complex, the home association's manicured pond - are all like neon- lit vacancy signs for nesting geese. In biological terms, these open areas are degraded landscapes; they are not indigenous to the Northeast. They mimic Canadian conditions where geese traditionally nest. So even though many geese still migrate, more of them are settling here. Absent landscape changes, that will continue.

Experience in Michigan shows that even if the Canada geese population is reduced to extremely low levels, the birds will still come back in a short time to nest in cities and towns.

Another contributing factor is that "waterfowl production areas" at national wildlife refuges, which replenish water fowl lost to hunting by creating optimal breeding, nesting and resting conditions, are adding to the number of Canada geese in the populated Northeast. Ironically, these programs are run by the two federal agencies that advocated for the new rule that makes it easier to destroy Canada geese: the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Fish and Wildlife Service operates the waterfowl breeding program on refuges, and the Agriculture Department oversees several programs that encourage farmers to raise waterfowl. "Farmers benefit," the agency says, as "reapers of waterfowl harvest, and by receipt of hunting fees for use of their land."

Another problem is that geese raised on farms from Maryland to New Jersey to Illinois are escaping refuges, only to arrive at parks or golf courses where they are not wanted - and where they are often killed as pests.

Natural landscaping is the most effective and humane long-run solution. The Canadian government, for example, advises that airports - which in the United States are given the most leeway for killing the geese and destroying nests - use an ecological approach: "Geese, like other waterfowl, are attracted to habitats that meet their basic needs ... Habitat modification is the best overall approach to long-term bird control."  

Riverkeepers point to revegetating our shorelines as the most effective, cost-efficient and sustainable way to encourage geese to resume their migratory habits.

Habitat modification guides available from the Animal Alliance of Canada (the Canadian government participated) provide suggestions for restoring landscapes. Geese are discouraged when vistas are blocked by strategic placement of shrubs, grasses, wildflower meadows, gates, fences and natural barriers.

It's also important to remember that the geese pose virtually no health threat to humans. In 1999, the National Wildlife Health Center, which is part of the U.S. Geological Survey, studied 12 sites in Massachusetts, New Jersey and Virginia to determine if organisms that may cause human disease are present in geese feces. The federal researchers reported that risk to humans was "minimal."

On the other hand, besides encouraging the geese to migrate, restoring more of the natural landscape can reduce our dependence on pesticides, improve soil, air and water quality and make Long Island a more naturally beautiful place to live.

Susan Russell is a former lobbyist for Friends of Animals Inc. and the Society for Animal Protective Legislation.

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