Wednesday, February 29, 2012

If You Believe in Lost Causes, the Canada Goose is Your Bird

Wishing the geese and their goslings "sweet dreams," Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the killing of over 2,000 resident birds within five miles of New York airports. New Jersey is following suit in 9 counties. USDA Wildlife Services, best known for trapping, shooting, poisoning, and gassing coyotes in their dens, is in charge, and will be paid at least $100,000 for the deed.

“This isn’t what we meant when we urged the government to take action,” wrote New York Magazine. “These are not the actions of a civilized society.”

These are the pro forma actions of Wildlife Services. In 2008, the bureau killed 4.9 million animals, mostly birds, with contract fees paying staff salaries. When expanding its business to the East Coast, the bureau outfitted trucks with portable gas chambers especially for geese. Owing to an entrenched culture and investment in gassing equipment, Wildlife Services resists non-lethal, modern landscaping methods used by other countries.

As per the mayor’s last minute announcement, USDA round-ups are typically planned in secret and presented as a “done deal,” thereby preventing public comment.
There will be no sweet dreams for flightless parents and goslings. News videos from New Jersey show USDA workers stuffing several terrified birds at a time into gas chambers, where breathing becomes so rapid that it is unbearable. Geese are intelligent, social, and, above all, emotional birds; there is panicked vocalizing, and murmuring to goslings. On camera, round-up workers in Seattle covered their own faces with brown paper bags.
Eager to "do something," the mayor chose an easy path that will do little to protect air travelers. No one is minimizing in-flight collisions with birds. Air safety is precisely why smart, ecologically- based initiatives practiced elsewhere must begin, post-haste.
US Airways Flight 1549 collided with "at least two" geese flying a migratory path. New York's airports are on the Atlantic Flyway, the ancient, migratory route for millions of birds, and hundreds of species. Strikes involve not only geese, but laughing gulls, wood storks, and starlings. In 1905, Orville Wright's plane hit a red-winged blackbird.
A former Port Authority bird control expert called the U.S. Air 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."

Experts say the news of the birds' species and flight pattern will help airlines and airports better mitigate the threat of bird strikes. Yet New York and New Jersey are rounding up non-migratory geese. This is akin to banning all parked cars in the aftermath of a tragic auto accident.

A percentage of resident geese do migrate during the molt migration. Most locals pond-hop, and generally fly at lower altitudes than migrating geese. Like planes, geese fly lower for short trips, and much higher for long distances. Altitudes for migrant and non-migrants alike can change with weather conditions, distance flown, and time of year.

Local geese continue to nest in urban parks because we humans invite them. 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 protective parents to see natural predators.

Airports, parks, golf courses, corporate and school campuses, playing fields, and private waterfronts supply not only housing, but a steady diet of gourmet fare: tender shoots of mowed, fertilized turf grass. Ecologically, metropolitan parks are in poor condition, consisting of mowed grass, punctuated by lollipop trees, and stripped of native vegetation.

The Canadian Transportation Agency stressed that because many of the goose’s basic needs are met at and around airports, “habitat modification is the best overall approach to long-term bird control."

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

Without landscape changes, geese will fill any temporary void, as demonstrated when the Michigan Department of Natural Resources began statewide shooting, killing 155,000 local birds by 2005. Alarmed by the species’ “precipitous fall,” the state curtailed hunting. After all of the killing, the same officials noted that surviving geese continued to nest in Michigan’s parks.

While reaping lucrative contracts for killing geese, USDA simultaneously breeds them. The department sponsors programs that encourage farmers to raise geese for shooting, and the annual federal farm bill is laden with waterfowl breeding incentives for hunting.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service farms waterfowl for hunting at national wildlife refuges, re-supplying birds by altering habitat and trapping natural predators --and adding to the number of Canada geese in the populated Northeast.

For both agencies, the goose’s predicament is a win-win situation. The bonus shooting seasons allow game departments extra revenue. USDA pays staff through killing contracts. As geese are pursued and killed as pests, USDA and FWS dodge accountability. Politicians only too ready to declare “war” on Canada geese will not confront the shooting lobby and its institutions.

Pursued to the brink of extinction, and re-stocked with a vengeance, the embattled Canada goose has come full circle. Humane sensibilities and smart policies that protect humans and geese are long overdue. Humans claim moral superiority over other animals, and a higher intelligence is undisputed. On both scores, we’ve yet to prove it by the geese. The action should stop. And someone should hand Mayor Bloomberg a brown paper bag.

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