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Learning to live with the Canada goose, a veritable 'poop machine'

Sunday, May 15th 2022, 11:54 am - A growing N.B. population, introduced in the 1990s, is a headache for farmers, cities and golf courses.

Ask Dan Hicks about the iconic Canada goose, and the first thing you're going to get is a laugh.

"Oh, you mean the ever-evolving goose chase?" Hicks said in a telephone interview from his office with the City of Moncton.

As director of parks operations with the city, he has been dealing with complaints about the birds for years.

"It's what they leave behind," Hicks said, "They're quite prolific in that regard."

Geese in Moncton, N.B./Guy LeBlanc/Radio-Canada via CBC A man walks along a trail through Centennial Park in Moncton, where Canada geese have become an issue for city staff. (Guy LeBlanc/Radio-Canada)

There's a good reason why people will describe a fast and efficient process as being comparable to the speed at which feces moves through a goose.

Estimates suggest a goose will poop several times an hour and up to 20 times a day.

So, a flock of 20 to 30 Canada geese can make a mess in a short period of time.

"You see people doing the Canada goose two-step around the park trails," Hicks said with a chuckle.

But the results of that prolific production is no laughing matter for Hicks and his parks employees.

Hicks said he's seen places where they counted five to 10 "little presents" per square foot of lawn.

The birds can make it impossible for people to enjoy urban green spaces, by fouling grassy areas with feces and by aggressive behaviour defending their nests and young.

Dan Hicks/Shane Magee/CBC Dan Hicks, Moncton's director of parks operations, has tried several methods to reduce the impact of geese. (Shane Magee/CBC)

The feces, if numerous enough and near water, can also cause E. coli contamination, leading to algal blooms and closures to swimming and other recreation.

Hicks said the city spends about $15,000 a year to purchase equipment to discourage geese from nesting where they're not wanted.

There's also a few days work setting up that equipment, and the hours spent monitoring how it's working.

And sometimes, it's only marginally effective.

It wasn't always this way.

For decades, Canada geese were a rare sight in New Brunswick.

Geese lights/Submitted via CBC Moncton uses floating lights that flash every two to four seconds at night meant to keep Canada geese awake and deter them from using Jones Lake and Centennial Park. (Away With Geese/Submitted)

According to The Assessment of Species Diversity in the Atlantic Maritime Ecozone, published in 2010, there are reports of Canada geese nesting in New Brunswick in the 1800s and into the early 1900s, but the population was likely hunted out of existence by 1905.

From time to time after that, Canada geese were seen in New Brunswick, but it wasn't until the early 1990s that breeding populations began to be reported in Maine and southern New Brunswick.

It's thought most of those birds were introduced, either deliberately or accidentally.

Then, in 1993, the provincial government of Frank McKenna began importing Canada geese from Ontario.

These geese, known as giant Canada geese, were genetically different from the geese that once called New Brunswick home.

And their recent appearance in Ontario and Quebec was causing headaches for people who looked after green spaces in municipalities across the southern part of both provinces.

Geese loading/CBC Canada geese being loaded onto a truck in Toronto, bound for New Brunswick. (CBC)

In June of 1993, 500 were rounded up in a Toronto park, put into trucks, and brought to New Brunswick.

The man behind the idea, Pat Kehoe, who was the province's manager of wetland habitat, was asked by a CBC Toronto reporter at the time why New Brunswick wanted them.

Kehoe replied, "Because you don't want 'em."

Kehoe, who now works for Ducks Unlimited, declined to be interviewed for this article.

Eventually, more than 4,000 Canada geese from Ontario were introduced to the area in the mid-1990s, in an effort to create a population for hunting.

And not everyone thought it was a good idea.

Alain Clavette, a naturalist and birder, was one of many people who sounded the alarm.

Moncton, N.B. geese/Kate Letterick/CBC Canada geese in a Moncton park in 2013. (Kate Letterick/CBC)

"I remember back then we were saying, 'Don't do this. This is stupid'," Clavette said in an interview by phone, "You're actually introducing a subspecies of Canada geese that we're not even sure was even here on the territory ever.

"And they were going to take them because back in Ontario they were creating havoc."

Clavette said he was concerned the large, aggressive birds would out-compete smaller waterfowl for nesting areas and food.

He said he's seen proof of that in the pond on his own property, where he used to see diverse species of waterfowl, but not anymore.

"What do you think is happening? There's two pairs of Canada geese. That's it. That's it," Clavette said.

"All the varieties of green wing teals and wood duck and whatever that could be … nesting in this little wetland that I created, it's been taken over by the geese."

Alain Clavette/Twitter/Submitted via CBC Birder Alain Clavette said the decision to introduce Canada geese into New Brunswick was a mistake. 'It's a man-made problem.' (Twitter)

Clavette said he's seen similar situations in wetlands across southeast New Brunswick, including the Bell Street Marsh in Moncton, also known as Wilson Marsh.

He calls this a man-made problem, an introduction that has been made worse by the way we create green spaces.

"If we would stop treating the environment like a frickin' golf course … you know, shrubs, tall grasses, wild plants — they don't [even try] that stuff," Clavette said. "They hate it. If a fox can hide in any type of surroundings, they hate to be there.

"But what we do, we slash all that out and we replace it [with] grass. Open area grass."

It's hard to know exactly how many Canada geese are now in New Brunswick.

"We don't have absolute numbers," said Al Hanson, the head of aquatic assessment for the Canadian Wildlife Service in the Atlantic region.

Family of geese/Al Hanson/Submitted via CBC A family of Canada geese. Adult geese can be aggressive, especially when they have goslings. (Al Hanson/Submitted)

"But we do an annual waterfowl survey throughout the entire province and it does show that what we call temperate-breeding Canada geese populations are increasing in New Brunswick."

In fact, Hanson said, the population has been expanding in the northeast of North America for decades.

And, he said, the decision to relocate a population here likely only sped up the inevitable.

"Even if that introduction hadn't happened back in the early 1990s, the geese would probably have been here and moved into this area anyway as part of that larger eastern North America population increase."

Hanson said the thinking at the time was that New Brunswick, having a more rural hunting culture, would keep populations in check.

Geese, Moncton, N.B./Kate Letterick/CBC News Short fencing set up along a section of Jones Lake. It was also used around the island at Centennial Park. (Kate Letterick/CBC News)

"But there's a bit of a disconnect, even in New Brunswick, between where these guys are living and the hunting opportunity," he said.

The nuisance geese are causing headaches in urban settings, where hunting just isn't possible.

So, the solution now is to find ways to discourage the geese from nesting and living in urban green spaces.

For Dan Hicks in Moncton, and municipal staff in communities around New Brunswick, that's a bit of a puzzle.

Hicks has a lot of tricks in his arsenal. He has put flashing lights in ponds at night to irritate the geese.

The city puts netting near the water's edge, in hopes the lack of access to water would discourage geese from nesting because it would be impossible to get flightless goslings to the safety of the pond.

Moncton goosinator/CBC Dan Hicks said the Goosinator was fun to operate, but didn't seem to cause the geese much concern. (CBC)

They've had some success with that.

They're also trying coyote decoys, and something called a Fly-Away laser, "basically a big flashlight."

Back in 2013, Hicks even experimented with the Goosinator, a bright orange remote-controlled vehicle intended to frighten away geese.

Hicks said he and his staff had great fun driving it around, but after a week free trial it was clear it wasn't "goosinating" anything, and it was sent back to the company that created it.

The newest experiment is a fake alligator to moor in a pond, although Hicks said they'll be sure to let 911 operators know in case it puts a scare into the human visitors.

Hicks said it's all in an effort to find a balance both species can live with, while avoiding more severe tactics such as addling eggs, relocating birds, or culling a nuisance flock.

"We're not there yet, and hopefully we won't be."

The story was written by Steven Webb, originally published for CBC News on May 14, 2022.

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