NEW JERSEY AND CANADA GEESE:
TOO PERFECT TOGETHER


Photo by Cathe Morrow

By Hugh Carola

It never fails. Whether on an Eco-Cruise, Eco-Walk or during the course of a presentation, someone always brings up the subject of New Jersey's least favorite waterfowl, the resident Canada goose. We hear questions like, "Why are they here?" "Why are there so many?" and "What can we do about them?"

In pre-colonial times, Canada geese (Branta Canadensis) never nested in heavily forested New Jersey because there was virtually no habitat for them. They require open areas on which to build their nests and plenty of grass upon which to feed. The tundra of northern Canada provided them with the perfect nesting grounds. Some geese overwintered in the saltmarshes along our coast but the majority bypassed New Jersey for better wintering grounds on Chesapeake Bay. It's post-colonial times that have brought changes to both our state and the geese.

The first changes occurred after the forests were logged. First came farms, then lawns with grass and lots of it. Next came the release of thousands of captive-bred geese by wildlife managers in the early 20th century. Believe it or not, hundreds of years of unrestricted market hunting had brought the species to the brink of extinction. The captive-bred birds lacked the strong migratory instincts of their wild cousins and learned to exploit the human-created habitat in New Jersey and neighboring states. Another factor to consider is the generally milder winters we have been experiencing over the last few decades. All these things together have resulted in a hefty population of over 106,000 resident Canada geese.

Needless to say, the biggest problem people have with geese is their droppings. A single goose can produce up to of a pound per day. Depending on sizes of local flocks and waterways, environmental impacts can be quite severe – picture any county or municipal park that features a pond in the middle of it. In addition to bad aesthetics, high nutrient levels, low oxygen levels, algae blooms, sedimentation and erosion are all problems that can occur due to large goose populations. So what can we do?

New Jersey has instituted a hunting season for resident geese (though needless to say in approved hunting areas only – you'll never see anyone setting up a hunting blind in Hackensack or Westwood). Some towns and county governments have contracted with companies that use propane cannons, herding dogs and other repellents. Some entities have applied for and received the proper permits in order to destroy eggs and nests. But for us regular folks, here are some practical ideas:

1) DON'T FEED THE GEESE! I know it's cute to bring your toddlers to the park and give them a bag of bread, but it teaches them the wrong lesson.

2) Let your grass grow. Geese love the tender shoots of grass that spring up after a fresh mowing. That's why athletic fields are often full of grazing geese.

3) DON'T FEED THE GEESE! If attracted to food handouts, they won't leave.

4) If possible, replace grass with pachysandra, English ivy, vetch, wildflowers or other ground cover.

5) DON'T FEED THE GEESE or any domestic waterfowl inhabiting your local waterway.

6) Don't give ducklings as gifts and help keep our waterfowl wild.

8) DON'T FEED THE GEESE! Support local ordinances that prohibit feeding.

It's impossible to separate the human history of the Hackensack watershed from the natural history and I hope this little primer on Canada geese has been helpful. While they're not the most "wild" of creatures, Canada geese are native to North America and are a perfect example of how some wildlife can learn to coexist with humans (which is fine as long as the bears don't take a lesson from them).

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