Riverdave’s Journal
This essay was published in the News & Observer on March 30, 2010

Smack!  Two large birds hit the engines of the U.S. Airways Flight 1549 at 2900 feet in the air on January 15, 2009.  A catastrophic tragedy is avoided as a senior pilot guides the crippled plane to safely land 155 passengers on the Hudson River. After DNA and microscopic analysis of feather remains in the plane’s engines, Smithsonian Institute scientists announce that one male and one female Canada geese had been shredded in the air.

The Canada goose is one of the largest species of North American birds, with adults weighing as much as eight pounds with a life span of up to 24 years. The female of a breeding pair is often smaller. Further lab work on the flight 1549 birds revealed that the food they ate after their last molt identified them as migratory birds from the eastern Canadian island of Labrador.  They can cover a distance of 1500 miles in just 24 hours.

Transportation experts now agree that this unfortunate event will encourage the use of better techniques for monitoring the movement of migratory birds.  This will be good news for both human and avian fliers. In fact, observing the flight of birds is a very ancient art and science.  In its simplest form, most traditional cultures believe that when birds fly in front of you to the left it is a bad omen and to the right a good omen.  When parting company, an Arab bedouin may say “ala tayr maymoon” - “may the bird fly to your right.”

Besides our resident Canada geese, North Carolina has two distinct winter populations - the Atlantic group which migrate from northern Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador, and the James Bay group that migrate from northern Ontario.  Durham’s winter population consists predominantly of the James Bay migrants.  But not all the Canada geese that we see in North Carolina are winter migrants from the north.  Many have become permanent residents of suburban neighborhood ponds, golf courses, parks and especially the land surrounding airports. 

Due to changes in farming practices that leave more leftover grain on the field, changing weather patterns and new hunting pressure, some migratory populations of Canada geese are changing their flight patterns and taking up permanent residency.  I have noticed an observable increase in their presence on the Eno River in the past ten years.

When March arrives, the restless calling of these mega birds is heard both day and night below our house in West Point on the Eno Park. But these new neighbors are not welcomed by all.  A flock of just ten birds can mean up to one ton of excrement a year deposited along the river and on the lawns of nearby neighborhoods.  Many urbanites consider them the latest faunal “problem,” just when they thought the beaver “problem” was becoming manageable! 

Personally, I welcome the presence of Canada geese in our area.  In Urban areas the abundance of their excrement may prove messy at times, but I find the bird’s positive qualities far outweigh the negative.  Perhaps some of us find them offensive because their mess reminds us too much of the far bigger extent of our own human waste products that we casually scatter across the face of this planet.  Could WE be the real “problem?”

For those who still feel like they would prefer Canada geese to keep their distance from their private or neighborhood pond, most wildlife experts agree that habitat modification is preferable to harsher goose dispersal techniques such as egg destruction, electric fences, chemical repellants, exploding devises, removal or hunting.

Maintaining native grasses, sedges and shrubbery around the perimeter of ponds will discourage geese from taking up residency.  They prefer a straight line view of their surroundings in order to keep track of predators.  Mowing down to the edge of a pond is a welcome mat for these big birds and affords them a sense of security.  In addition, native vegetation around a pond will invariably increase habitat for other forms of desirable wildlife like smaller birds, fish, frogs and turtles.

The disposition of resident Canada geese provides people a unique opportunity to interact with non-human life.  These birds exhibit a very strong pair bond and close family life.  Watching a pair successfully nest and nurture a brood of little ones is a very rich experience.  And to spot a V-shaped flock of Canada geese, honking through a sunset sky, can suddenly become a magical switch that loosens the tense grip of a long and weary day ...
Photo by Riverdave: Canada Geese at pond in the Lochaven Hills neighborhood in North Durham, N.C.