Dr. John M. Scanlon - November 2009

Lords of the Shore

by

Dr. John M. Scanlon

   The Canada goose has become an icon for Maryland’s Eastern Shore. That distinctive white cheek patch, black neck, back and wings with a pearl-gray chest adorn businesses, billboards and highway signs from the Bay to the ocean, C&D Canal to Cape Charles.
    The goose glut is a relatively recent phenomenon. The improvement of mechanical corn pickers pulled by efficient tractors made small grain harvesting lucrative. This led to more acres placed under cultivation and more kernels spilled. Migratory geese were short stopped and their winter population soared. Hunting opportunities increased and an economy based on this largesse blossomed. The greater part of this bonanza took place after WWII when the Mid-Shore declared itself the “Goose Capital of the World.”
    Lordly, some call them. Magnificent, stately, noble and regal are other adjectives used to describe the Canada goose (Branta Canadensis). Hunters label them wary, smart and wise when wave after wave carefully avoid well-placed decoys and expert calling.
    Those who encounter distinct greenish goose droppings around golf courses or public ponds use less laudatory descriptions. However, from late September until the middle of March, these very large waterfowl can be seen grazing in harvested fields or gently cruising fresh and salt waterways all over the Mid-Shore. If the male oriole (Icterus galbula) didn’t display Lord Baltimore’s colors, the Canada goose would surely have become our state bird, as well as the avian symbol for America’s northern neighbor.
    The dark goose population declined a decade ago due to over-harvest and an inability to detect significant populational decline by the then-used prediction methods. Intense study went into learning more about their breeding success, migratory habits and wintering needs. Using new breeding ground banding data plus direct observations at northern nesting sites, along with satellite tracking surveys, a much better understanding was achieved about the reproductive biology of this distinctive goose. As a result of such new knowledge and subsequent enlightened management practices, nearly a half million Canada geese now stay on the Shore each winter. And goose hunting has roared back.
    Almost all geese that spend each winter on the Shore breed in a specific area of far northern Quebec. This region, which lies between Hudson Bay and Hudson Strait, is called the Ungava Peninsula. The Ungava is sparsely populated by native Inuit with a total of 12 villages sprinkled across its 97,000 square miles.
    The predominant geographical feature of the Ungava Peninsula is treeless tundra broken by glacial lakes and rivers. A thick permafrost layer makes traditional home building almost impossible. Year-round human subsistence becomes formidable.
    Bad weather arrives early, there is a lot of snow and ice, and then winter lingers well into late spring. For a goose to leave Maryland and fly north involves a leap of faith that ice will most likely be gone, edible vegetation will have appeared and late snow storms will be unlikely. However, geese have been flying to the Ungava and successfully breeding for many thousands of years. They must know something about timing.
    Canada geese establish long-standing pair bonds for mating and traveling. When a mate is lost, however, they will reattach for the next breeding cycle. Dark geese are ground nesters, preferring grass tumps surrounded by water. Many predators enjoy dining on their eggs and/or eating adult birds. The major predator is the arctic fox (Vulpes lagopus). Various large birds of prey will take grown geese. Gulls (Fams. Xenia, Lars), parasitic jaegers (Stercorarius parasiticus) and black bears (Ursus americanus) rob eggs.
    When molting occurs, both young and old birds become flightless and vulnerable. Predator numbers influence how many hatchlings live to make the return southern flight that following autumn.
    Here on the Shore’s wintering grounds, geese must contend with foxes, eagles, coyotes, large owls and, of course, human hunters. Goose hunting is big business in these parts, with many commercial outfitters, sporting goods stores and hunt clubs contributing to the Shore’s economy. Many dollars change hands over the Canada goose. But this hunting-driven economy also means that farms will have grain left and areas groomed as good habitat for Canadas.
    From the end of hunting season (late January) until mid-March, when they fly north, geese face the Shore’s most severe winter weather, abundant non-human predators and a dwindling food supply as fields are gleaned for fallen grain and residual greenery. It is a perilous existence and their condition is closely monitored both by state and USF&WS biologists using regulations codified under the Migratory Bird Treaty (MBT).
    The MBT was first negotiated between the U.S. and Canada in 1918 to protect all migratory birds that pass through or fly into the states, including game birds. Subsequently, other nations (Mexico, Japan and Russia) joined in similar agreements to protect avian species for which the world had no political boundaries.
    The MBT was a direct response by our government to over-gunning and habitat loss in the late 19th century. Such activities threatened great reduction, even extinction, for some migratory species. The passenger pigeon and Labrador duck are notable examples.
    Canada geese have been direct beneficiaries of this cooperative legislation. As a result of population-based data about migratory game birds from this joint international effort, scientifically supported hunting seasons and bag limits were established and are continually modified.
    One confounding issue has been increasing numbers of locally bred Canada geese labeled Resident Population (RP) in bird biologist parlance. Such birds never truly migrate except when snow or frozen ground move them a little further south to find food. These “homer” animals are probably offspring from purposeful stocking on federal refuges, escapees from private collections or clipped-wing ornamental birds released on private properties.
    Many of these RPs originated from the giant Minnesota sub-species (B. canadensis maxima) which can weigh almost 20 pounds, twice the heft of the usual Canada. Such giant geese leave quite large reminders of their last meal as well – not an endearing trait.
    RP geese have bred prolifically to become nuisances in some areas. Paradoxically such venues, typically close in suburbs or actual urban areas, often are jurisdictions where gunning is forbidden. Compounding the RP pest problem, few natural predators are comfortable there either. Thus, big messy local honkers prospered, unchecked.
    You might recall the sorry tale from a few years back where a physician golfer at a tony DC course dispatched a Canada goose with a golf club. This bird was probably an RP or “golf course” bird. The goose had allegedly soiled the green on which the doc was trying to putt. The offending doctor paid a really big fine and became the object of some ridicule in local papers. RP geese are covered under the Migratory Bird Treaty, so this goose slayer got the same treatment (sans newspaper ranking) that a poacher of owl or hawk might receive.
    As you might imagine, separating AP and RP information so that both groups of identically appearing geese are properly managed is a continual challenge for waterfowl biologists and state agencies charged with this task. Clearly many lay people, hunters and others, become confused when diminishing goose populations are discussed. They have seen, with their own eyes, hundreds of Canadas waddling around their favorite public park in no apparent shortage.
    Based on banding data and standardized aerial observations, there are special regulations that define separate locations, limits and dates to manage RP geese. Thus, both populations receive specific attention based on their numbers and habits. As a general rule, most geese you see on the Mid-Shore during winter are migratory AP geese.
    It is always a thrill to watch that twinkling vee of big birds spiral into a cut corn field, honking a greeting to geese on the ground. Equally exciting is to witness birds “juking” as they spill air from their wings, rolling and flipping into the wind, to jockey for landing position, feet down, necks outstretched. And when they leave in March for the far frozen North, wish them safe passage and great success so we may again see and hear another icon of autumn.

   I wish to thank Larry Hindman (Waterfowl Project Leader, Maryland Department of Natural Resources) for assistance with accuracy and content. I am indebted to Larry for his help. Any mistakes are mine.
– John Scanlon, M.D.