The Canada goose is a controversial bird, writes Richard Collins.
This familiar resident of city parks fouls paths and lawns. Bossy and aggressive, it’s accused of bullying the Greenland whitefronted goose, a vulnerable species. Eight years ago, Canadas were implicated in a notorious aviation accident which inspired a major film (Sully). Now the birds are in trouble again; the authorities at one of the world’s great seats of learning, King’s College Cambridge, claim that geese there have become a threat to health and safety.
‘Canada honkers’ are native to North America; those on this side of the Atlantic are descendants of ones brought to England in the 17th Century. Charles II introduced Canadas to his wildfowl collection at St. James’s Park in 1665. The greyish brown body, black head and neck, are distinctive. Gleaming white face patches extend up from the chin. Breeding throughout England and Wales, Canadas have doubled their numbers in recent decades. We haven’t many in Ireland; breeding is mostly confined to the Erne catchment area and the lakes of drumlin country in the northwest. American vagrants are seen occasionally among visiting whitefronts on the Wexford slobs.
This large vegetarian, with a liking for man-made environments, thrives wherever there is open water and swards suitable for grazing in the northern United States and Canada. Although often deemed a pest, local people generally oppose culling it. Exasperated at seeing other waterfowl compromised by the geese, swan expert Bill Sladen once told me that he wanted people to eat these nuisance geese.
Increases in goose numbers have led to crowded skies in some areas. On the afternoon of January 15th 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 took off from La Guardia Airport, New York. Three minutes later, flying above the Bronx, the airbus slammed into a flock of Canada geese. The turbine blades of jet engines can withstand collisions with medium-sized birds but a large goose might weigh 5kg. Power was lost in both engines. Pilot Chesley Sullenberger, with extraordinary judgement skill and incredible luck, managed to land his plane smoothly in the Hudson River close to the George Washington Bridge. Miraculously, all 155 souls on board climbed out onto the wings and survived. There were no serious injuries.
We can’t blame the geese for the New York crash, but we must take sides in the ongoing war between Canadas and their neighbours in Greenland. There’s an Irish dimension to the conflict. According to BirdWatch Ireland, almost 36,000 Greenland whitefronted geese came here for the winter of 1999/2000. By 2010, there were less than 23,000. Crucially, juvenile birds were virtually absent from the flocks; not enough youngsters are being raised to compensate for the deaths of older birds. The culprits appear to be climate change and Canada geese.
Prior to the 1970s, few Canadas visited west Greenland where the whitefronts breed. The rising temperatures of recent years have made conditions there more suitable for honkers. Colonisation has been rapid. The aggressive invaders monopolise resources and the whitefronts are losing out. Breeding success is reduced and parents are being forced from their traditional brood-raising sites.
Compared to the Greenland problem, the row in Cambridge is a storm in a teacup. Geese convert large amounts of grass into long soft turds. These faecal creations are deposited indiscriminately at rates of up to one a minute; people can slip and injure themselves on the resulting mess. Sports fields, it’s alleged, are becoming virtual skating rinks and there’s a risk that disease will spread.
Some of the dominant birds, it’s reported, have become aggressive and are biting people. Cleaning up after geese is time-consuming and expensive.
Proposals to cull the geese have angered students, who consider it unnecessary and cruel. A letter, signed by a quarter of the student population, has been sent to the authorities in defence of the birds.
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