My daily walks in the country are a great source of pleasure. This is my time to be alone and to relish the cool autumn air, the slowly changing colors, the leaves drifting across my path and floating softly to the ground. The sights and sounds of the occasional wildlife, usually from a distance, prompt me to keep my eyes and ears open. I eagerly await that next furtive sighting.
It was a thrill a few days ago to hear the distant gobbling of wild turkeys behind me as I walked away from a wooded area where I have seen them foraging in the past. And today my eyes were drawn upward as I heard the raucous honking of Canada geese flying directly overhead. I marveled at that familiar V-formation, remembering how, as a child, I used to feel a fleeting connection to the wilderness whenever I caught a glimpse of their seasonal flight on long ago autumn days.
Branta canadensis -- Canada goose
At one time, the resident population of Canada geese in Illinois was hunted almost to extinction. In recent decades their numbers have been reestablished, and they are now among the most recognizable birds in the state. While thousands of these waterfowl once overwintered in extreme southern Illinois, they now can be found further north due to climate changes and modern agricultural practices. In addition to lakeshores and riverbanks, rural farm ponds and cultivated fields, they can also be observed in large, wintering flocks near urban waterfronts, golf courses, picnic areas, and city parks.
Among the largest of Illinois waterfowl, the Canada goose can weigh up to 24 pounds and can be identified by its black head and long, black neck with a distinctive white "chin strap." Its broad back and wings are gray-brown, and its breast and belly are light brown to whitish. It has a short, black tail with white underparts. Males and females look very similar, the females being somewhat smaller. The young birds (goslings) are yellowish with gray-green or olive-colored feathers on the back and top of the head. The goslings are precocial, meaning that they are born with their eyes open, are fully feathered with down, and are capable of moving and leaving the nest within 24 hours of hatching. Unlike most birds, the young will maintain a bond with their parents for almost a full year and will follow them to their wintering grounds in the fall. In addition, the male goose will aggressively defend the nest and young from people and other animals if they come too close to the nest or try to approach the goslings.
Canada geese may live up to 20 years, but many will not survive the first year. The eggs may fall prey to raccoons, skunks, gulls or crows, and the goslings to coyotes, snapping turtles, or mink. They also may not successfully complete their first migration. The healthy adult birds have few predators besides coyotes, and hunters may harvest some each year which helps to control overpopulation.
Canada geese are diurnal (active during the day), herbivorous (plant eaters), and graze on grasses, roots, tubers, seeds, grains, nuts, aquatic plants and algae. They may occasionally supplement their diets with aquatic insects or other invertebrates. The female builds a nest of plant material lined with down on an island in a marsh or pond, along a shoreline on the ground, or often on top of a muskrat lodge. She will incubate 4-10 (usually 5-7) white eggs for 25-30 days. The parents will raise one brood per year, and will re-nest only if their first attempt was unsuccessful. They are monogamous and mate for life, but will re-mate if one of the pair dies. The young adults will not breed until their third year.
There are seven subspecies of Canada geese but only the largest one, the giant Canada goose (Branta canadensis maxima) is known to breed in Illinois. Geese from other subspecies and breeding populations from as far north as Canada may pass through during migration or may spend the entire winter in our state, adding greatly to the numbers of these birds during the winter months. And while the giant Canada geese make shorter and less frequent migrations than the other subspecies, they will migrate further south as the severity of winter weather dictates. In fact, if snow impedes their access to food, they can survive as long as 30 days without it.
Having a few geese grazing nearby is not likely to cause much conflict, but large flocks established in an area can lead to problems. Because successful breeding in a location can lead to annual return visits, a pair of geese in one year can quickly multiply into a large flock in just a few seasons. And the presence of a small number of geese on a pond or lake can easily attract more. High numbers of geese in rural areas can damage agricultural crops, and urban flocks can cause traffic jams, foul lawns and golf courses with droppings, damage turf with grazing, and pose safety threats near airports when taking flight. Once established, these birds are difficult to convince that it's time to leave.
So what can be done when Canada geese become a nuisance? It is usually best to employ a variety of management techniques to send them packing. Since geese prefer ponds with shallow banks and short grass on the shoreline so that plants don't impede flight or obstruct their view of predators, planting taller grass species or limiting mowing to once or twice a year can help discourage nesting. Planting trees and shrubs around the pond can help as well. When building a pond, a bank with a vertical slope of 18 to 24 inches makes it harder for young geese to get in and out of the water and can help deter the adults too. Placing a fence right at the edge of the water 24-30 inches tall can be helpful, but it must remain tight or the geese will walk right over it into the water. Simply allowing the pond to freeze in the winter and refraining from feeding the geese may discourage the presence of additional birds and may encourage those already present to migrate to "greener pastures" once winter sets in.
In our backyards and gardens, a three-foot-high poultry fence can help keep them out, especially in summer when vegetation is lush and inviting. Even using a three-strand fence of 20 pound or heavier monofilament fishing line trained around an area can achieve good results. Sometimes, the presence of a feisty family dog in the yard, or using a trained canine to harass the geese in larger areas can effectively keep them from using a site. Remember, preventing the geese from inhabiting an area in the first place is much easier than convincing them to move on once they have become established. And Canada geese are protected under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Illinois Wildlife Code, as are all waterfowl. It is illegal to remove or kill geese or destroy their nests or eggs unless a permit is obtained from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Hunting is allowed, but all hunting regulations pertaining to Canada geese must be strictly followed.
Canada geese play important ecological roles as food sources for predators and as seed dispersers. In my neighborhood, the geese seem to be only passing through. I still see them as a sign of fall as I look to the sky and listen to them answer each other with their familiar honking as they fly. To me, it's just one more beautiful sign from nature that crisp autumn days have arrived.