By Sally Griffin
Traveling on a major, four-lane city street last week, just ahead of me, I saw cars stopped on both sides of the road. As I got closer I could see that it wasn’t an accident. It was three Canada geese waddling across the road from a pond on the other side. And, as if to prove their point, on my way back home on the same street and in the same spot, there were four geese slowly making their way across the road. And they did this while yelling as loudly as possible at the waiting drivers.
Geese can certainly fly. Some have been reported flying over Mount Everest. They can reach speeds of almost 60 mph. So why are they walking at 1 or 2 mph across a very busy street? I know they can’t fly when they are molting. But that is usually from mid-June to mid-July. This is early spring.
The answer I found is that they are grazing. When they are grazing, they walk from their water site to their feeding site. And walking uses far less energy than flying. According to the New Mexico State University Cooperative Extension, “Canadian geese prefer to walk or swim. They do not like to fly.” And, it seems, they don’t feel they need to fly in order to avoid cars weighing many tons more than they do. (By the way, most experts, but not all, say they are Canada geese, not Canadian geese.)
A couple of days later, I stopped at a local bank to make a deposit. The bank is nowhere near water and is at the intersection of two very busy roadways. Greeting me outside the front door was a very loud and very large goose, who thought this was his territory. When I asked my banker, she confirmed my suspicions and told me that this guy does indeed believe this is his property and they are not exactly sure how to get rid of him. (Actually, I read that female geese have the lowest and loudest voice, so this may have been a “she.”)
This is nesting time for geese, but I only saw one goose and, certainly, no water, no grass, and no safe place for a nest. Hopefully, this silly goose will soon realize this and move on.
Because they are so common in our parks, lakes, ponds or golf courses, we think we know geese. You may be surprised at some of the things I found out.
Population: You may not believe this because you see them so often, but there was a time, not so long ago, that Canada geese were an endangered species. The U.S. and Canada have laws protecting these birds and their efforts have been widely successful. After decades of decline, the number of Canada geese in North America has grown from less than 500,000 in the 1980s to more than five million today.
Travel: Most, but not all, do migrate each year. They will travel thousands of miles to return to their birthplace. By flying in a “V” formation, the whole flock adds 71 percent greater flying range than flying solo. When the lead goose tires, it rotates back into formation and another goose takes over as the lead. They keep from tiring because they have the advantage of the lifting power of the goose immediately ahead of them. The V formation also helps them keep track of each other, communicate about navigation, and honk to encourage each other to keep up the speed.
They are constantly on the move. You may think the geese you saw yesterday are the same geese you are seeing today, but that, usually, is not the case. So even if they don’t make an annual journey to Canada and back each year, they often take to the sky to look for new lakes, ponds, parks or golf courses. Once they are in the air, a 300-mile round trip is no big deal for them.
Mating: These geese look for mates when they are around 2 years old. Geese, in the wild, typically live 20 to 25 years. (Some in captivity have lived to almost 80 years old.) When they find a mate, they mate for life. Interestingly, they seem to pick mates that have their same body size.
If one mate is killed, they may find another, or they may not. If they don’t find another mate, they remain celibate. No mate, no sex. However, they may babysit and help family members raise their goslings, aka baby geese.
Habitat: It seems we have done the best we could to provide them with lovely parks, lakes and golf courses with water features. Canada geese are adaptable to many habitats and tend to thrive wherever grasses, grains or berries are available. They look for grass to eat, water to drink and unobstructed views to help them spot danger before it gets too close – in short, most of our parks or recreation areas.
In Fort Collins, some of the parks have installed fake coyotes to ward off geese. It seems to be working, at least temporarily. However, geese are no dummies and eventually recognize that these coyotes are immobile and, therefore, no threat.
In some areas, like airports, they can be a real hazard. If they are not afraid of cars, they are also not intimidated by planes. But being sucked into a jet engine is not good for either the goose or the plane.
Health: In our parks and golf courses, they can provide another hazard. Just 50 geese can produce 2-1/2 tons of excrement in a year. They need to eat about 4 pounds of grasses or grains a day and will produce 3 pounds of poop. With the goose’s digestive system, food literally goes right through them.
When geese poop gets in water, it creates a health risk for humans in the form of swimmer’s itch organisms. They also carry E. coli in their digestive tracts. The presence of E. coli can also mean there are other nasty parasites in goose poop.
Gangs: Where there are a great many geese, they form what are called “gang broods,” groups of 20 to 100 goslings from different parents, that move around and feed together accompanied by a few adults. This is good for the “gang” goslings since larger groups can control the best feeding spots.
In addition to “gangs,” other groups of geese have specific names: on the wing, a group of geese is called a “skein;” in the water, a group of geese is called a “gaggle.” A friend of mine, a former Navy man, also sees the orderly swimming of geese as a “flotilla.”
While we often treat geese as though they are outdoor pets, it is usually best not to mess with geese. During the nesting season, which is happening right now, we should stay clear of possible nesting sites. If there are eggs involved they will attack.
Besides avoiding their nests, there are other steps we can take to avoid conflicts with these birds at other times. According to Sid Andrews of Canada’s Inglewood Bird Sanctuary, “Don’t make eye contact with the geese, keep your voice low and move slowly.” Good advice! Particularly, if you bank at the same place that I do.