For many Marylanders, our state bird should rightly be the Canada goose, a majestic, graceful symbol of the Chesapeake Bay and the Land of Pleasant Living despite its foreign name. The graceful, fluid V-flight of the long-necked honkers is one of the most thrilling sights in nature. (The official Baltimore oriole is not a distinct species, is little seen here, and its only Maryland connection is a shared plumage with the Calvert clan.)
Sadly, the numbers of Canada geese in this area have been declining for nearly a decade. Late winters in northern Quebec breeding grounds have hurt their reproduction success, and successful waterfowl hunters have been killing too many breeding-age birds. This year's mid-winter census in Maryland was 234,000 geese, the lowest since 1963 and only half the 1986 estimate.
That is why the Department of Natural Resources proposes cutting the hunting season for the migratory Canada geese from 52 days down to as few as 18 days. This follows four years of minor restrictions on bag limits and seasons, which have not stemmed the decline. "We are whittling away at our breeders and that is what we have to protect," says Joshua Sandt, DNR's wildlife chief.
When the rockfish (Maryland's true state fish) reached endangered levels a few years ago, a total fishing ban was the only belated, practical response. The white-cheeked geese have not reached that danger level -- yet. But the ban will surely come if something is not done now, such as cutting the season. North Carolina failed to respond to similar warnings and, as a result, has had a ban on hunting Canada geese for the past five years.
The Chesapeake Canada goose population is distinct from other geese along the Atlantic Flyway. The bay geese stay here in warm weather; Maryland's wild geese have a long-standing family interest in this home. So while humans can't change the weather in the birds' breeding grounds, they can act to protect and restore this population.
Goose hunting is good business in Maryland and those who earn their living from the sport will certainly feel the pinch of tighter restrictions. But the consequences are not as dire as they predict, and the alternative may be a hunting ban and threatened-species status for the Canada goose (which some non-hunters might enthusiastically support.) Conserving Maryland's distinctive winged residents is in everyone's best interests, and we should take measures to protect the goose that for so long has laid an economic golden egg.