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Feature Article - October 27, 2005

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Feature Article

October 27, 2005

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Gray MerriamLegaleseGeneral information and opinion on legal topics by Rural Legal ServicesNature Reflectionsby Jean GriffinNight Skiesby Leo Enright

Canada's Honkers:National pride or Global pest?

Commentary by Gray Merriam

October in eastern Ontario. The sky is filled with skein after skein of honking geese – Canada Geese. In early morning light they move inland from the St. Lawrence River to the farmland. Harvested fields of soybeans and of corn are their daytime destination – as long as the field has some standing water. On these productive fields on the heavy soils of the old Champlain Sea bed, that only requires a rainy day or two.

As the squadrons of geese come in for a landing, a few hunters, concealed along the edges of fields, take a small toll from the never-ending flocks.

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At dusk, the process reverses and the flocks get airborne, sort out their flight formations with much gabbling and honking and head off for nightly security on the water. The St. Lawrence is only a half-hour’s flight south and has accommodations for thousands of these big birds.

Their autumn and spring visits to eastern Ontario are just refueling stops in the year’s adventures of Canada Geese and don’t get much human attention. The fields they visit have already been harvested in the fall and the geese are an efficient and trouble-free harvesting machine for the beans and corn that can’t be captured by the agricultural harvesters. In spring, the geese may make a mark on the freshly sprouted green crops but there is little concern.

Elsewhere though, there is lots of concern. Geese love to eat green grass. Geese have exterminated all grasses and sedges from some arctic islands, converting the vegetation to mainly mosses. When the geese move down the Atlantic seaboard, they visit the golf courses - hundreds of geese eating the greens and, as naturally organic conservationists, returning a good fraction of what they eat to fertilize the crop. Golfers don’t understand pure organic behaviour.

Many Canada Geese have figured out that all this long hard flight time isn’t really necessary. There are acres of fresh green grass in big cities midway along their historic migration paths. Some tried it and found they could nest and raise young in places like the Toronto waterfront. City parks personnel tend the fields, passersby chase off troublesome daytime pests, nights are safe on the water and the traffic on Lakeshore Drive generally slows or stops to let mothers and broods cross over. So why fly south and north? Climate. Cold winters say go south. But Lake Ontario does not freeze for most of the winter and sometimes, not at all. Forget migration. Stay in the park.

Geese following this philosophy have prospered. More so in Vancouver. Some have even exported their new lifestyle to Sweden.

Canada Geese are gaining pest status not just in North America.

It is fortunate for the arctic and northern breeding grounds that much of the surplus population no longer uses those northern breeding grounds. The increased grazing pressure could do long-term damage to the vegetation. That is a threat to the breeding grounds of the Snow Geese that stick to their migratory habit and do not breed in the south but are increasing in numbers very rapidly.

Because of this evolving difference in behaviour, Canada Geese easily could become hated pests, especially in cities, while Snow Geese could retain their image as creatures of the wild.

It is not that long since hunting regulations for Canada Geese were quite restrictive. Relatively, they still may be but authorities are beginning to encourage increasing harvests of the flocks. The steady increase in Canada Goose populations and their changes in migration and breeding habits were not predicted. Like many other changes in ecological systems, these changes were probably in response to complicated interactions among a great complex of variables. Such unpredictable changes may be fair warning that we should act on the side of caution when the stakes are high and the system is not fully understandable. A common situation for decision-makers.

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