Canada Geese

Goose

Figure 1: Photo Credit - Ty Smedes

Overview

Canada geese (Branta canadensis) are among the most familiar birds in Maine. They are a source of recreation for bird watchers and hunters and symbolize nature for many people. No one can miss the clear honking call of Canada geese when they fly overhead in their V-shaped formation. Maine has both migrating and non-migrating (often called resident) geese. For a goose to migrate, it must be taught the flight path by its parents or other adults in its group. Therefore, all following generations of non-migratory Canada geese will also be non-migratory birds that will stay year-round in the region they were raised.

Populations of resident Canada geese have dramatically increased over the past 25 years, particularly in urban areas where there are few predators, prohibitions on hunting, and a dependable year-round supply of food and water.

Canada geese are particularly attracted to mowed lawns around homes, golf courses, parks, and similar areas next to larger bodies of open water. Because geese and people often occupy these spaces at the same time of the year, conflicts may arise. Many citizens enjoy the presence of geese, but others do not.

The Canada goose has a black head and crown, a long black neck, and white cheek patches that connect under the chin. The adult gander (male) tends to be bigger than the goose (female) and averages 30 inches in length with a 60-inch wingspan. (Fig. 1)

Facts about Maine's Canada Geese

Food and Feeding Behavior

  • Canada geese graze while walking on land and feed on submerged aquatic vegetation by reaching under the water with their long necks.
  • Wild food plants include pondweed, bulrush, sedge, cattail, horsetail, clover and grass; agricultural crops include alfalfa, corn, millet, rye, barley, oats and wheat. Geese may also eat some insects and other very small animal life but their diet is primarily vegetarian.
Nest

Figure 2

Nests and Nest Sites

  • Canada geese nest in areas that are surrounded by or close to water. (Fig. 2)
  • Nest sites vary widely and include the shores of cattail and bulrush marshes, the bases of trees, the tops of muskrat and beaver lodges, old stumps, islands and artificial nesting platforms.
  • The nest is a bowl-shaped depression approximately one and a half feet in diameter lined with grass, leaves, lichens, mosses and goose down.
  • A pair of geese may return to the same nest site in consecutive years.

Nest sites vary widely and include the shores of cattail and bulrush marshes. (Fig. 2)

Reproduction

  • Canada geese can begin nesting at two years with most starting at three years of age. Adult pairs usually stay together until one dies. Lone geese will find another mate, generally within the same breeding season.
  • Between one and eight but normally four eggs are laid in the nest between April and June. The female incubates the eggs while the gander (male) stands guard nearby. The female leaves the nest only briefly to feed each day.
  • Eggs hatch after 25 to 30 days of incubation. The young, called goslings, can walk, swim and feed within 24 hours.
  • Both parents (especially the gander) vigorously defend the goslings until they are able to fly, which is at about ten weeks. The young geese remain with their family group for about one year. If the nest or eggs are destroyed, geese often re-nest in or near the first nest. Canada geese can raise one clutch per year.

Longevity and Mortality

  • Coyotes, raccoons, skunks, bobcats, foxes, gulls, eagles, crows and ravens all prey on Canada geese and their eggs. Humans hunt geese.
  • Canada geese hatched in urban environments may have very low first-year mortalities due to the abundance of food and relative scarcity of natural predators.
  • Canada geese can live more than 20 years in captivity. In the wild, their life span ranges between 10 and 24 years.
Nest

Figure 3: Photo Credit - Russell Link

Viewing Canada Geese

Geese are able to exploit the environmental conditions found in urban areas. They are often the largest and most conspicuous birds that people see.

Geese often fly in a V-shaped formation. (Fig. 3) This arrangement allows each trailing bird to receive lift from the wingtip vortex of the bird in front of it, saving energy and greatly extending the range of a flock of birds over that of a bird flying alone. Scientists have suggested that flying in V-formation may also be a way of maintaining visual contact and avoiding collisions.

Nest

Figure 4a: Drawing Credit - Stokes

Nest

Figure 4b: Drawing Credit - Stokes

Common Displays

Figure 4c: Drawing Credit - Stokes

Common Displays

Figure 4d: Drawing Credit - Stokes

Displays

If there is a large, active flock of geese nearby, you will likely observe several obvious visual displays, especially during the breeding period (Fig. 4).

Some common displays of Canada geese: (Fig. 4)

Nest Site Behavior

Early in the breeding season, watch for a pair of geese quietly exploring an area. Later, listen for the honking call, which may be geese greeting each other or engaging in a territorial squabble. Also, look for a lone male, feeding or resting, who is aggressive toward other geese or to you. Chances are its mate is on a nest nearby.

Canada geese are aggressive defenders of their nests and young. Do not approach too closely as they may charge. If cornered, they are capable of inflicting bruises with their beaks and wings.

Calls

The typical goose ahonk, ahonk, ahonk call is given during aggressive encounters, as a greeting, and when calling a mate. The call of the male is thought to be lower than that of the female, and when a pair flies overhead, you may be able to distinguish the two sounds.

A hiss-call is usually given at close distances when geese are defending their territories, their nests or their young.

Molting

Like most waterfowl, adult Canada geese go through a complete molt every year. Molting is an opportunity for geese to replace their worn, frayed or lost feathers with new ones. The molt takes 30 to 45 days and is completed by mid-July, after nesting is over and before migration begins.

The young are with the adults during the molt, and at this stage none of the family can fly— the young because they haven't grown their full flight feathers and the adults because they are replacing their flight feathers. Thus, the birds often move to areas that provide adjacent water for escape opportunities.

By late summer all members of the family can fly, and they move to areas where there is abundant food, joining with other geese to form large flocks.

Track

Figure 5: Drawing Credit - Kim A. Cabrera

Tracks

Canada goose tracks are often seen on mudflats in conjunction with their sausage-shaped droppings. Their feet turn inward when they're walking. The foot's three main toes fan out in front and are connected by webs. (Fig. 5) The claws are broad and blunt, and their imprint can usually be seen.

The Canada goose has four toes, but the hind toe is elevated and does not leave an imprint. (Fig. 5)

Droppings

Figure 6: Photo Credit - Russell Link

Droppings

Droppings are cylindrical and five to eight times longer than wide. (Fig. 6) Fresh droppings are greenish and coated with white nitrogenous deposits. Older droppings are darker. Because geese have a rudimentary digestive system, they eat often and expel undigested remains in short order. Adult geese produce one to three pounds of droppings per day per bird.

Fresh goose droppings are greenish and coated with white nitrogenous deposits. (Fig. 6)

Back to top

Preventing Conflicts

Canada geese are extremely adaptable. They use various resources present in urban landscapes for nesting, raising young, molting, feeding, and resting. This behavior has led to increasing conflicts between geese and people. In parks and shorelines with short grass, large flocks of geese can denude areas of vegetation and litter them with their droppings and feathers. Sometimes geese frequent public swimming areas that then must be closed (see Public Health Concerns). Nesting geese can be aggressive toward any humans who come too close to their nest or young.

In public areas with favorable habitat, it is rarely desirable or possible to eliminate geese entirely. Ideally, management programs should strive to maintain goose numbers and keep related problems to a level that a community can tolerate.

No single, quick-fix solution is likely to solve conflict. Instead, an integrated approach using several of the techniques described below is generally required. Ideally, strategies should be in place before the conflict starts or quickly thereafter, as it is much more difficult to discourage geese after they have become attached to a site. After nesting has started, moving or scaring geese off a nest is illegal.

Suggestions for preventing conflicts or remedying existing problems
  • Stop feeding geese: When the diets of geese are no longer supplemented with handouts and they have to depend on the natural food supply, some or all the geese will move elsewhere.
  • Install interpretive signs in public areas explaining the problems that result when humans feed geese. Signs might include the following information:
  • Please don't feed the geese! Human food is not good for the geese because it lacks proper nutritional value. Feeding attracts more geese than the area can support naturally.
  • Geese in high concentrations are more likely to get diseases and parasites.
  • Goose droppings are unsanitary and unsightly. They harbor parasites that can cause human health problems, and they increase algae growth that, in turn, causes fish kills.
  • Geese eat plants needed for ground cover and erosion control.
  • Too many geese in one area may force the municipality to have them killed.
  • Goose-management costs residents money.

Change the habitat

Evolutionarily, Canada geese are tundra nesters that prefer to congregate on low vegetation adjacent to open water. Thus, areas of lawn next to water often attract geese. Large lawns provide food to graze on, room to take off and land, and an unobstructed sight line to scan for potential predators. Although it can be expensive to transform a large lawn into something else—such as a play area or a landscape made up of plantings other than grass—it is the best long-term solution to human/goose conflicts. These changes can occur over time and in phases; fencing or repellents may be necessary while the new landscape is being established.

One important consideration is to reduce the size of an area to the point where geese no longer feel safe feeding on it. An open sight line (the distance from the geese to a place where a predator could hide) of less than 30 feet will generally cause geese to move to a more comfortable place to graze.

Increasing the height of the lawn to six inches and reducing the number of tender new shoots that the grass produces will also make a lawn less attractive. If you stop fertilizing and watering the area, you will reduce the palatability of the lawn as well as your maintenance time. (The grass can be kept at any height with a weed-whacker) All of the lawn— or only a wide portion bordering a body of water—can be maintained this way.

If necessary, towns or cities may need to pass ordinances to regulate feeding and create authority to enforce such regulations.

Back to top

Barriers

Barriers are most effective when goose numbers are low, when geese are molting, and when the barrier is in place before geese begin using the area.

Low barriers may not deter flying geese from entering an area. However, since geese typically do not land in an area that is less than 30 feet wide, barriers or lines of vegetation, can be used to break a site into smaller spaces. Low barriers can be combined with above-ground grids to prevent flying geese from gaining access to planted areas.

Plants

Figure 7: Drawing Credit - Jenifer Rees

Plant Barrier Vegetation or Erect Fences

You can use landscaping to take advantage of a goose's fear of confinement. By blocking the birds' pathways to grazing areas and safety, and reducing their sight lines to 30 feet, you can use shrubs, aquatic plants, and closely spaced groups of trees to discourage them from settling into an area.

For immediate results, use plants that are at least 30 inches tall to prevent geese from seeing over them, and plant them densely or in a staggered pattern to prevent geese from walking through gaps. Wide plantings of 20 to 30 feet are more effective than narrow arrangements. In wide plantings, winding footpaths prevent the geese from having a direct line of sight through the planted area, yet still provide shoreline access for humans (Fig. 7).

Place plants densely or in a staggered pattern to prevent geese from viewing a passage through the area. Construct winding paths that people – but not geese – will be able to use. (Fig. 7)

Where space is limited, combine one or two rows of shrubs with a fence (see below). Ideally, the fence should be installed first and the shrubs planted as closely as possible so that they envelope the fence as they grow.

Geese often gain access to grazing areas by simply walking onshore from the adjacent body of water on which they have landed. Therefore, introducing a barrier of aquatic plants along the shoreline of a water body can create both a physical and a visual barrier to geese. Barriers of native aquatic vegetation that are at least three feet wide and include tall material, such as bulrush (Scirpus spp.), are most effective. (Fig. 8)

Cat9

Figure 8: Drawing Credit - Jenifer Rees

If the limiting factor is the absence of an area on which to establish the new aquatic planting, constructing such an area can help. In private ponds 30 acres or less (not a Great Pond by law) cutting and filling can achieve a stable substrate on which to plant a barrier of aquatic plants. The water level of the pond, or other impoundment, can be temporality lowered to allow construction of the planting area.

Constructing a planting area along natural water bodies can be more problematic or even illegal. A permit is likely to be required; contact the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and your town Code Enforcement Officer for permit information. In addition, it may be difficult to manipulate the water level, and placing fill in deeper water is more to create unstable, slump-prone areas.

In private water bodies, cutting and filling can provide a stable substrate on which to plant a barrier of aquatic plants. (This activity may require a permit from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection)The water level of the pond or other impoundment can be temporarily lowered to allow construction of the planting area. (Fig. 8)

How to Protect New Plantings

Newly plantings often suffer high mortality as geese pull them up while grazing. (If they were in the process of migrating, these geese would ordinarily arrive later and there would not be such intense pressure on vegetation) To reduce this problem, or where barriers and other control tactics are not practical:

  • Place large stones around the crowns of plants.
  • Insert a metal staple (used to secure jute netting) over the crown of individual plants or place long lengths of wood lath over the crowns of a row of plants. Secure the lath with metal staples or rocks. These devices will need to stay in place for at least two growing seasons. If emergent plants are being established or if there is a lot of pressure from resident geese, the devices may need to remain for a longer time.
  • Use plants with a large root ball. (for example, plants that have grown in one-gallon containers instead of four-inch pots or plugs) These larger plants will have a better chance of getting established during the first few growing seasons.
  • Drape bird netting over groups of new plantings; check netting daily for entangled birds.

Mylar Tape

This tape, which is red on one side and silver on the other, is inexpensive and highly reflective. It is sometimes effective to string the tape horizontally, about 18 inches above the ground, along the perimeter of the area where geese are unwanted. Geese may be uncomfortable walking under the tape. This strategy is most effective when adults and young are flightless, the area to defend is small (a lawn instead of a football field), and the geese have other options nearby to fulfill their needs. Tape and instructions are available through regional offices of MDIFW.

Fences

Fences can be made from woven wire, poultry netting, plastic netting, plastic snow fencing or electrified wire. Fences should be at least two feet tall (three feet may be better), firmly constructed, and installed to prevent the geese from walking around the ends.

Regardless of the material, lower openings should be no larger than four inches to prevent goslings from walking under or through the fence. Thus, a fence made from five woven wires should have lines set at four, eight, 12, 18, and 24 inches above ground.

Fences used in areas with tidal influence need to prevent geese entering the shore at all tide levels but not trap fish. Turning field fencing upside down— moving the wider holes to the bottom—may accommodate fish passage.

Fence

Figure 9: Drawing Credit - Jenifer Rees

Many electric fences are portable and can be set up in one or two hours and quickly taken down for storage when not in use (Fig. 9) The strands only need to be placed four, eight, and 12 inches above the ground. Due to the variables with respect to power source, fence design and fence operation, it is best to consult a reputable dealer for specifics. (Look under "Fence Contractors" in your phone directory). Information is also available from farm supply centers. Most home improvement centers carry suitable units. In addition, the USDA Wildlife Services provides electric fencing on a rent-to-own basis.

A low electric fence may be a temporary solution when geese have young or are molting. Flag the lines to warn people, and expect pets and wildlife to knock them away. (Fig. 9)

Back to top

Harassment and Scare Tactics

Harassment and scare tactics are sometimes used to frighten Canada geese away from feeding, loafing and resting areas. When geese learn that no real physical danger is associated with the disturbances, however, they quickly learn to ignore them, no matter how effective these devices may be initially.

To take advantage of a goose's fear of novel objects (neophobia), follow three important rules:

  • Never rely solely on one tactic
  • Vary the use by altering the timing and location, and
  • Begin as soon as the geese arrive.

Keep in mind that harassment and frightening devices are only as effective as the person deploying them. Harassment and scare devices are available from the Internet, at over-the-counter bird-control businesses, and at some farm and garden centers. Harassment and scare tactics include:

Eyespot Balloons

Like most birds, geese rely more on vision than on their other senses to avoid danger, so visual stimuli can be effective. Commercially available eyespot balloons are big, helium-filled balloons with large, eye-like images. (Big colored spots on three sides of any helium balloon can suggest eyes.) Tether balloons – two should be adequate for an average size yard – on a 20- to 40-foot monofilament line attached to a stake or heavy object. Position this line where the wind will not tangle it in trees and utility lines; reposition it at least once per day.

Flag

Figure 10-1: Drawing Credit Jenifer Rees

Flag

Figure 10-2: Drawing Credit Jenifer Rees

Flag

Figure 10-3: Drawing Credit Jenifer Rees

Flags and Streamers

Flags and streamers work best in areas where there is a steady wind. The simplest design uses plastic garbage bags mounted on tall poles (Fig. 10).

Mylar tape can be made into six-foot streamers and attached to the top of eight-foot poles. The disadvantage of Mylar tape is that it is only effective in bright sunlight and wind. Reposition poles with flags and streamers once per day.

Flag designs using a large plastic garbage bag on a pole. Note the wooden battens installed to prevent the flags from ripping. (Fig. 10)

Scarecrows

Scarecrows are only effective where geese view humans as dangerous predators, such as in rural areas where geese are hunted. Scarecrows can be made out of almost any material, but the design should include movement, bright colors (red, blaze orange, or safety yellow), and large eyes. For maximum effect, the arms and legs should move in the wind. Relocate the scarecrow once per day.

Large, blow-up toy snakes are reported to work as a type of scarecrow when geese locate in a swimming pool. Simply buy two or three of these snakes, add weights (sinkers), and put them in the pool. Streamers made of Mylar tape may also work if strung across the landing zone.

Noise-making Devices

Devices that make a loud bang can scare geese, causing them to take flight. Promptness (beginning as soon after the geese arrive as possible) and persistence are the keys to success when using these devices.

Noisemakers include propane cannons, blanks and whistle bombs. Propane cannons are stationary devices that explode propane gas at irregular intervals. Shell crackers and whistle bombs are shells that are fired from a shotgun or special pistol. When fired they either explode or scream for a distance of 50 yards. Pyrotechnics should only be used by skilled individuals who understand the dangers that these devices can pose.

Loud auditory tactics generally require permits from area police departments and may be restricted in urban areas because of noise ordinances. It is important that all organizations involved in the process be kept up to date regarding their use. In addition, the residents of the surrounding neighborhood should be advised of the goals, dates and process.

The more geese are exposed to these fear-provoking stimuli, the faster they will become accustomed to and ignore them. For this reason, noisemakers should be used sparingly; propane cannons, for example, should be set so that they fire only a couple of times per hour.

Lasers

The National Wildlife Research Center has recently conducted research that shows that relatively low-power, long wave-length lasers provide an effective means of dispersing geese, gulls, crows and ravens under low light conditions while presenting no threat to the animal or the environment. The lower power levels, directivity, accuracy over distance, and silence of laser devices make them safe and effective species-specific alternatives to noise-making devices.

Although researchers are not sure if birds see the same red spot as people, it is clear that in certain bird species the spot of laser light elicits an avoidance response. The birds view the light as a physical object or predator coming toward them and they generally fly away to escape.

Note: Lasers should never be aimed in the direction of people, roads or aircraft. At the time of this writing, the cost of a laser device is still quite high. Check with dealers through the Internet and over the counter at bird-control businesses for current prices and instructions for use. Towns that are interested in using laser devices should contact IF&W for more information on their use in Maine.

Dogs

When directed by a handler, dogs are the method of choice for large open areas such as golf courses, airports, parks, agricultural fields and corporate parks. Dogs may not be appropriate, however, in residential areas, parks with continuous public use, areas bisected by roadways, and large water bodies. Results are often immediate. After an aggressive initial use (several times a day for one or two weeks), geese get tired of being harassed and will use adjacent areas instead.

If a dog is tethered to a lead, the handler may need to frequently relocate the lead to cover more area. Or, the handler may throw a decoy into a large flock of geese and allow the dog to retrieve it. Thirdly, if it is not against a leash law, the handler can periodically release the dog so it can chase the birds.

The gaze of border collies apparently frightens geese, although the dogs rarely go on to harm the birds. Border collies can be trained to deal with geese or they can be purchased already trained. As an alternative, some businesses now offer collies for hire as a geese-chasing service.

Other breeds of dogs can also do the job. Whatever breed is used should be from proven working stock, preferably with prior experience with or exposure to live animals, particularly birds.

Back to top

Chemical Repellents

Taste-aversion products and other chemical repellents may be applied directly to the problem area and will not permanently harm the geese. Drawbacks to repellents include the high costs of covering large areas, the need for frequent application during rainy stretches and during the growing season, odors associated with the few registered products, and their negative influence on the behavior of other wildlife.

If geese have used the area in the past, apply repellent before their return. Carefully read and follow all label and technical directions.

Back to top

Lethal Control

If the above non-lethal control efforts are unsuccessful and the damaging situation persists, lethal control may be an option. Lethal control techniques include legal hunting, shooting out of season by permit, egg destruction by permit and euthanasia of adults by government officials.

Back to top

Public Health Concerns

Canada geese are not considered to be a significant source of any infectious disease transmittable to humans or domestic animals, although their droppings are increasingly cited as a cause for concern in controlling water quality in municipal lakes and ponds.

Swimmers itch (schistosome or cercarial dermatitis) is caused by a parasite that can be spread by goose droppings, but does not mature or reproduce in humans. To reduce the risk of swimmers itch, vigorously towel off immediately upon exiting the water (towel off the bathing suit as well) and then immediately take a soapy shower.

If you do get the itch, a topical rash cream should alleviate some of the discomfort. The rash should clear up within a week. If you have concerns or questions, contact a physician.

Back to top

Legal Status

Canada geese are protected under federal and state law. A hunting license and open season are required to hunt them. Where lethal control of Canada geese or mallards is necessary outside of hunting seasons, it should be carried out only after the above nonlethal control techniques have proven unsuccessful and only under permits issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Currently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services is the only agency permitted for lethal removal.

Back to top

Additional Information

Books

New England Wildlife, Habitat, Natural History, and Distribution
Written by: Richard DeGraff, and Mariko Yamasaki
University Press of New England, 2001.
(Available from: www.upne.com)

Internet Resources

Adapted from: "Living with Wildlife in the Pacific Northwest"
(see Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife)

Written by: Russell Link, Wildlife Biologist, Email Russell Link, with assistance from WDFW Biologists Rich Beausoleil and Rocky Spencer

Design and layout: Peggy Ushakoff, ITT2

Illustrations: As credited

Copyright 2005 by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife


Back to top