On a cold, gray morning recently, I was out on the Chesapeake Bay when I uncovered the government goose plot.
They appeared to be normal migratory geese, which fly from Canada down to the Chesapeake Bay every fall and return up North in the Spring.
You know, the non-migratory Canada geese you see hanging out all over golf courses in the summer. Why are they such lawn potatoes? Why don’t they fly back home to the Arctic in the warm months like they’re supposed to?
Dr. Perry, a scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Maryland, shocked me when he said these so-called "resident" geese have their origins, in part, in a government project that went awry.
“Originally, humans wanted the birds here (in the Chesapeake region) in larger numbers," Dr. Perry said. "And so one of the things that we did – a lot of the states and the federal agencies did – was they captured migratory birds and clipped their wings so they couldn’t migrate north. And what happened is, those birds stayed in the area, and they paired up and they nested. And the offspring from those original pairs did not migrate after that in the next year -- because they had never migrated."
"What happens with all young geese and practically all young animals is they follow the adults, the parents," Dr. Perry said. "And if they don’t make that first flight with their parents, they don’t know how to migrate.”
This was back in the 1940s and 1950s. State and federal wildlife agencies brought in these geese and clipped their wings to populate wildlife refuges and state lands in the Chesapeake region and elsewhere. The offspring of these clipped birds had perfectly normal wings. They just don’t know how to use them to fly back home to their breeding grounds.
It’s an example of how animals, like people, can learn. And how they can learn from bad parenting, and how these lessons can be passed on for generations.
The offspring of these non-migratory resident geese have multiplied from just a handful to more than 3.6 million across the country.
Amazing. But the story seemed a bit far fetched. So I called another expert, Larry Hindman, waterfowl program manager at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. He said there’s even more weirdness to the history of geese.
As it turns out, Canada geese historically did not live or even winter here in the Chesapeake region. Most just flew over on their way from the Arctic to the Carolinas.
Hindman said hunters first trucked the birds into our region last century. And the geese they brought in were of a distinctive genetic strain from the Upper Midwest that were larger and more sedentary. Hunters kept them in cages and tied their feet to the ground, so they could serve as live bait.
“Live decoys, that was a technique that was used by hunters in the early 1900’s," Hindman said."They basically kept these birds in captivity….and they would go hunting, put out a stool of decoys, a number of wooden decoys, and then they would add few live birds that were actually tethered. And the idea was that the movement and the sounds that these ducks or geese made would interest wild birds passing overhead. And then the wild birds would decoy into gun range.”
When the government outlawed this practice in 1935, about 15,000 of these “live decoys” had to be released. These geese had also lost their ability to migrate. So they hung around, and may have interbred with the clipped-wing geese that the government later imported.
Today there are roughly 80,000 resident, non-migratory geese in Maryland. And because they gobble up aquatic vegetation that other birds need, and poop all over parks and other public places, they are now regarded as a nuisance. So the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other agencies are working to reduce their populations.
There is some irony here. First, the government wanted these Canada geese to hang around. Now, it's trying to get rid of them because they're not migrating like they should.
And so, when you hear that familiar honking sound in the winter sky... Stop and think about those other geese, the ones that have forgotten how to fly back home.
(By Tom Pelton. Photo of Dr. Matthew Perry by Tom Pelton. Pictures of Canada geese, at top and bottom, by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)