Friday, January 30, 2009

Amid a Surfeit of Killing, Cries for More

Artemis Ward said that it’s not what we don’t know that causes us problems, but what we think we know.

With plane-bird strikes in the news, little attention has been paid modifying airport landscapes in ways that discourage geese from settling in. New York’s blunderbuss dailies demand goose blood, and lot’s of it. Yet According to Transport Canada, landscaping is the best long-term solution at airports. The agency writes:

“Geese, like other waterfowl, are attracted to habitats that meet their basic needs for water, food, nesting and security. Given that many of these needs can be met on and around airports, habitat modification is needed to maintain airport safety. As well, habitat modification is the best overall approach to long-term bird control.”

At Vancouver International Airport, long grass kept both geese and ducks out of sensitive areas. Airports in the Netherlands replaced grass with an herb-rich mix - more wildflowers and fewer grasses - that flourish in poorer soils. Plans can include alternative sites where birds will safely rest and feed.

Absent these changes, geese will, sooner, or later, fill any temporary void. Killing massive numbers of geese does not keep survivors away from enticing real estate, and does not, as we have seen, prevent mid-air strikes.

When Michigan reduced its resident Canada goose population from 320,000 to l65,000 birds, and officials curtailed the hunt as numbers fell “precipitously,” surviving geese, they noted, continued to flock to cities and towns.

In fact, the US Airways accident occurred amid a prolonged surfeit of killing. Federal rules already allow unbridled killing and nest destruction, especially around airports. In most of the country, state hunting departments set extended seasons for local Canada geese.

New York and New Jersey augment the regular season with September and January hunts. Last year, New York reported 52,000 Canada geese killed during September alone. New Jersey allows the use of electronic calls, unplugged shotguns, liberal kill limits, and shooting after sunset.

The 2007—2008 season claimed an estimated 936,000 geese, mostly Canada geese, on the Atlantic Flyway. The figure does not include waterfowl hunting crippling rates, which federal authorities place at higher than 30 percent.

That is not all. During the molt, when adult geese lose their flight feathers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services (USDA), which kills over 100,000 predators in western states, rounds up and kills thousands of geese in the Metropolitan area. Private exterminators destroy thousands more.

Hazing – via pyrotechnics, noise, and other gimmicks that generally do not work - is sporadically employed. This soaring bird, whose muscular, woodwind-trumpet honk once symbolized the call of the wild, now lives as a fugitive.

Two federal agencies, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, produce waterfowl for gunning. As the geese are pursued and killed as pests, both are given a free pass.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service runs waterfowl breeding, and hunting, programs at national wildlife refuges, re-supplying birds lost to hunting, trapping natural predators, and adding to the number of Canada geese in the populated Northeast.

The USDA oversees several national programs that encourage farmers to raise waterfowl for gunning. "Farmers benefit," the agency says, as "reapers of waterfowl harvest, and by receipt of hunting fees for use of their land” – as USDA reaps lucrative contracts killing geese. USDA development bureaus specifically include plans for breeding Canada geese in New Jersey and New York. The annual federal farm bill is laden with waterfowl breeding incentives for gunning.

New York’s airports are on the Atlantic Flyway, an ancient migratory route for millions of birds, and hundreds of species. Strikes involve not only geese, but laughing gulls, wood storks, starlings, even lone birds. In 1905, Orville Wright’s plane hit a red-winged blackbird.

A former Port Authority bird control manager called the US Airways collision “freakish.” He explained: "There's nothing they can do about geese flying from Canada when you've got a natural flyway here - unless they go to Canada and kill all the geese."

Hunted to the brink of extinction, the embattled Canada goose has come full circle. Beginning in the 1950s, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state game departments, and private preserves reintroduced the birds for gunning purposes. Managers penned, pinioned and tethered adults as live decoys, and planted desirable field crops, until the geese abandoned migratory behavior.

The geese stayed because we extended the invitation. Like us, nesting parents choose real estate for their kids. The goose version of a house in the suburbs and good schools is water surrounded by fertilized turf grass, and little else. The clear line of sight allows highly protective parents to better identify natural predators.

Airports, parks, golf courses, corporate and school campuses, proliferating playing fields, and private waterfronts supply not only housing, but a steady diet of gourmet fare. Geese love nothing more than tender shoots of mowed, fertilized turf grass.

The manicured ideal is, in biological terms, degraded. It strips shorelines of native long grasses, wildflowers, meadows, shrubs, and trees. Restoring degraded landscapes reduces pesticide use, protects watersheds and prevents flooding, hosts bees and other pollinators, improves soil, air, and water quality, promotes a natural beauty -- and encourages the geese to move on.

Old ways of thinking, and the entrenched cultures of regulatory agencies, die hard. Modifying the landscaping at and near New York airports cannot be piecemeal, or half-hearted. The effort should be regional, including the major airport grids, where practicable. It will require planning, political will, and patience. And then there are those bird breeding operations.

Given the airports’ presence on the flyway, increased flights, and quieter engines, collisions are inevitable. Reclaiming degraded lands can mitigate that fact. And no amount of killing can erase it.

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