The Canada goose, once a solely migratory bird whose majestic V-formations filled the autumn skies, in recent years has become an all-too-familiar year-round resident of Middle Atlantic suburbs and farms, including those in Maryland.
As the goose population has doubled every five years of late, the big honkers have become pests in the eyes of many people.
But there is another, older image of the handsome waterfowl with the jet-black head and neck, white chinstrap, fat, cream-colored body and broad brown back. "One of the great birds of the world," James A. Michener called the Canada goose in his novel "Chesapeake."
Two images coexist
Today the two images - romantic migrant and local nuisance - coexist in reality.
There are two big populations of Canada geese in Eastern North America: the familiar year-round residents of the suburbs, comparative latecomers artificially introduced to the Middle Atlantic region since World War II, and the long-distance fliers, members of genetically distinct subspecies that do not breed with the year-round residents.
About now, the migrants should be taking off from their breeding grounds in northern Canada on the same long journey to the Chesapeake Bay and other Middle Atlantic localities that their ancestors have been making for centuries.
But while the resident goose population has boomed and prospered, the hardy migrants' future is clouded.
The migrants from Canada, perhaps 300,000 in all, are vastly outnumbered by the permanent residents, which total nearly a million. And while the resident population continues to expand, the number of breeding pairs among the main group of migrants, in northern Quebec, dropped by more than three-quarters from 1987 to 1995; a scant 29,000 pairs raised goslings last year, compared with 130,000 eight years earlier.
Since the migrants are genetically separate from the resident geese, their shrinking numbers make them of special conservation concern: Biological diversity is measured not only in species, but also in subspecies and in the variety of genes within a species that make it more fit for long-term survival.
"It's most important to retain these stocks of birds and to manage them individually," Jerry Serie, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said of the migrants, not least because of their importance to the hunting economies of the Inuit and Cree natives in Quebec. Serie represents the Wildlife Service on the Atlantic Flyway Council, an American-Canadian waterfowl management group.
Biologists have attributed the decline of the migrants to hunting and unfavorable spring weather in the northern breeding grounds. The birds are shot for sport all along their migration route, and the Inuit and Cree kill them for food.
This year, for the second year in a row, hunting the geese has generally been prohibited during the winter in what is called the Atlantic flyway, from Quebec to North Carolina. The Inuit and Cree have curtailed their subsistence hunting as well. As a result, the breeding population rebounded to an estimated 46,000 pairs.
But the recovery, if one is under way, may be sputtering. Cold weather last spring led to a poor crop of goslings. Consequently, "we're going to be kind of hurting" when that poor crop reaches age 3 and begins to breed, Serie said.
From time immemorial, the object of this concern was prized by native hunters throughout the Northeast and Middle Atlantic region just as the Inuit and Cree prize it today.
To one Michener character on the Chesapeake Bay, an Indian called Pentaquod, the geese "seemed too big to be called birds; they were more like flying bear cubs loaded with edible meat."
The migrants are especially plump at this time of year in preparation for their taxing journey. One subspecies, Branta canadensis interior, fattens on the tundra vegetation of its breeding grounds on the Ungava Peninsula of Quebec just east of Hudson Bay.
A less numerous subspecies, Branta canadensis canadensis, breeds farther east in Labrador and Newfoundland.
The breeding pairs, which mate for life and only rarely "divorce," have just regained their flight feathers after the molt that each year renders them unable to take wing. The goslings, having traded their coat of golden fluff for feathers, have made their inaugural flights.
Some of the migrants originally flew as far as Florida, said Dr. Bruce Batt, the chief biologist for Ducks Unlimited, a waterfowl conservation group that participates in research on the geese.
But as agriculture developed on the Delmarva Peninsula in the last century, they began to zero in on the peninsula's rich cornfields. Ever since, the peninsula has been their major wintering ground.
After World War II, other populations of geese gradually began to establish themselves year-round in many places across the United States, often with the help of state agencies that &L; introduced them as a restoration measure.
As suburbs expanded, they provided ideal habitat: lots of grass to eat (geese are grazers) and no predators except for a few dogs.
"Geese can handle anything up to the size of a fox or raccoon," said Batt, and even people must beware. "They can beat you up" with their wings, said Batt, who once was knocked out by a goose.
With little to fear from predators and hunting prohibited in most localities, the resident population gradually increased and then exploded. Actually, the residents do not stay in one place. They move around within the Atlantic region as weather conditions dictate. But they do not make the long-distance flight to the tundra, breeding locally instead.
While the migrants belong to two distinct subspecies, the residents represent a mixture of races, products of the many introductions from other parts of the continent, with the giant Canada goose, Branta canadensis maxima, predominant.
Problem of control
One difficulty in managing the geese is that hunters cannot readily tell the migrants and residents apart.
The residents are now legally hunted in many localities as a means of population control. But how does one protect the migrant population while allowing residents to be shot? One option is to close the hunting season while the migrants are in the southern part of their range, during the winter, and open it at other times.
This is not considered a perfect solution, however, and researchers, including Batt, have embarked on a program aimed at sorting out the two groups more precisely.
The program involves affixing tiny radio transmitters to geese in the Quebec breeding area and then tracking their movements by satellite. In this way, the researchers hope to determine where the geese stop during their migration and for how long. They might then be afforded extra protection from hunting in those areas.
Some computer models show that it might take 10 years for the breeding population to recover even in the absence of hunting, but Serie is more optimistic. The goal is to achieve a breeding population of 150,000 pairs.
When half that number has been reached, hunting may be
reinstated. This could come by the end of the decade, he said, but "at this point things are a little uncertain."
Pub Date: 9/15/96