Our national goose – emblematic and problematic

The range of Canada goose extends from the Arctic to Florida, and the species, comprising at least seven subspecies.

— Barbara Julian

The range of Canada goose extends from the Arctic to Florida, and the species, comprising at least seven subspecies, is regularly seen in Siberia, China, Japan and Europe. Brant canadensis’ formation flying clearly enables its global reach, but why do geese honk as they go? It’s almost like a warning to the aircraft that share their flight paths. Unfortunately the danger of Canada geese colliding with planes taking off and landing at Victoria International Airport is one reason why they are not everybody’s favourite bird.

Researchers at Britain’s Royal Veterinary College have shown that the V formation reduces wind resistance: air from each bird’s wingtips creates a vortex with an up-wash that gives lift to the bird behind it. The honking may communicate that a bird is about to fall back to a more restful position, each conserving energy to enable a longer flight for the group. From below it sounds as if the birds are rallying each other. Geese begin honking (or peeping) at birth, so it’s no surprise that they use vocal cues when travelling.

Many people appreciate the regal bearing and elegantly curved black and white neck of Canada geese. We admire how they stride confidently on land, glide serenely in water, mate for life and guard their young. They can be fierce about this, as anyone knows who has come between a mama goose and her eggs or goslings while out exploring an estuary. She will chase and hiss until you get out of her space, or her mate will.

According to American Wildlife rehabilitator Robin McClary, “the female chooses her mate based on his displays of behaviours (and) indicates her choice…by beginning to follow him on land or water or standing next to him at all times. Mated pairs who have been separated for even a short time greet each other with an elaborate display (which) includes loud honking.” Both parents incubate eggs during the 24 to 28 days it takes them to hatch, although the female does most.

During this period the adults moult and then re-grow flight feathers just when their young hatch. At local beaches we see them leading the offspring in a line, one parent at the head and the other at the tail. If one of the little brown fellows wanders off (and they are curious and active infants), a parent will promptly herd it back. This is sensible behaviour as goslings have many predators: raccoons, ravens, large gulls and eagles.

Their worst predator though is humanity. By the early 20th century Canada geese were almost wiped out by hunters, but were re-introduced throughout North American mid-century. Now they favour parks, golf courses and farmers’ fields where they browse the vegetation and leave droppings. They leave an unsightly amount in Beacon Hill Park, but both the federal government and the U.S. Center For Disease Control state that goose droppings carry no health hazard for humans. Some introduced strains never got the memo (by imprinting) about migrating, so they settled year round and leave their calling card repeatedly.

The CRD together with “municipalities, wildlife provincial authorities, stakeholders and farmers” has begun a Regional Canada Goose Management Strategy — or in plain language, a cull —- aimed at 250 birds with 40 already dispatched. They wrung their necks, but may also try addling eggs which means removing eggs from nests, shaking, piercing or covering them with oil so as to terminate embryo development, and then returning them.

News of this cull caught some people by surprise, as Canada geese have not received the attention which urban deer have when faced with culls. Yet they too have supporters. Some believe we should respect the bird that bears our country’s name, even as others see this national emblem as a local nuisance. Yet who can’t help liking a bird who stands by her mate, sets off on cross-country flights at the drop of a honk and defends her children to the death? Not a bad bird to share a nationality with.