Growing up in West Des Moines, I became familiar with geese very quickly. They chased me on my bike, pooped all over the trail and flapped their wings menacingly at my brother and I as we walked our nervous dog.
Like many a suburban child, I learned that geese were not my friends. They were ornery poop machines out to ruin my day. And I certainly wasn’t alone in thinking this. According to Mike Gaul, parks manager for Des Moines Parks and Recreation, the city has received many calls complaining about negative interactions between humans and geese.
“I wouldn’t call them complaints; it’s more just feedback,” Gaul corrected me. “You know, a lot of them are feces on a trail and how unsightly that is. And it can also be slick, too. There’ll be times when [the geese] are aggressive to any individuals that are out in the park. [The geese] are maintaining their area. They’re defending themselves and they’re nesting.”
But some of these encounters have done more than ruffle feathers.
“Every year, a goose nests right above the entryway of Dowling Catholic High School,” said Andy Kellner, a wildlife biologist with the Iowa DNR. “And so it’s up on the roof, the nest isn’t causing the problem, but the gander is very protective. And so he dive-bombs students when they’re trying to get into the building. So that’s unfortunate and one of the times when we get a conflict call.”
When there’s a human-goose conflict in Des Moines and other cities, it’s invariably a Canada goose involved. Branta canadensis is a familiar sight in the skies — Canada geese are the ones that fly in wedge formations — as well as on the ground and in ponds, and have little of the innate fear of humans most wild animals have.
Big with a black head, white cheeks and chin, a black neck, brown back and tan breast, they can be aggressive about defending their territory, especially when there are eggs or goslings in a nest. They are by far the most abundant goose in urban and suburban settings, and are the most pervasive goose species present in Iowa.
Des Moines has become the latest in a long line of North American cities to launch a concerted effort to manage Canada geese. In October, the Des Moines City Council voted to ban feeding geese, ducks and deer within city limits, declaring them to be “nuisance animals.” Two months later, the city council approved a 39- page Canada Goose Management Plan, which was created by the city’s Parks and Recreation Department working in conjunction with DNR.
The plan began to be implemented this spring.
“There isn’t one tool, it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution,” said Orrin Jones, a DNR waterfowl biologist who worked on the plan alongside Kellner. “So we use an array of everything.”
Canada geese love a manicured lawn. They eat short grass, and grass shorter than six inches makes a greenspace look like a buffet. Short grass near a pond or other waterway also makes for an attractive nesting site, because it allows geese to easily scan the horizon for predators. So the primary focus of the plan is to make small alterations to the landscape to make it less appealing to geese.
The goose control plan calls for letting the neatly trimmed grass grow longer on some city properties where geese nest, and replacing some of it with strips of native prairie plants — which can help a whole range of bugs and birds flourish — and butterfly gardens. This would cut back on easy feeding and obscure sight-lines for the geese.
Making grass less tasty is another option. The plan calls for the use of sprays with methyl anthranilate as its active ingredient. That may sound like a chemical warfare agent, but it’s not. Methyl anthranilate is derived from Concord grapes, and it’s what puts the grape flavor in grape soda and candies. Geese, however, find it irritating.
Noise, both manmade and dog-made, is also an important tool, the plan explains. Pyrotechnics “that mimic gunshots” and “other bird scare noise devices” will be used, as will dogs trained to bark and chase, but not bite or catch. This kind of carefully coordinated harassment — or “aversive conditioning,” as it’s officially known — is intended to convince geese they’ve chosen the wrong neighborhood and move on.
There will also be gunshot sounds that don’t involve mimicry, because the plan includes goose hunting inside city limits.
If you’re anything like me, “urban hunting” is an unsettling idea. But hunting in approved areas in Des Moines is already a thing. It can only take place on “agriculturally zoned property that is over 20 acres in size,” Kellner explained. There are also regulations on what weapon can be used, limits on not just the number of weeks hunting can occur but also the time of day hunters are allowed to try to bag game.
DNR proposes increasing bag limits and hunting seasons around the metro to “encourage harvest of Canada geese” as part of the plan.
“So hunting is an interesting part in the puzzle,” Kellner said. “And that’s because it can actually have a direct impact in removing certain birds, right?”
This “aversive conditioning” is more effective when combined with other deterrents, he said.
“Now you have a dog there too, and [the geese] can see a predator, and there’s a bang, and it’s harder to see because of habitat — all of a sudden you’re compounding all of those things to have a bigger impact on a specific area.”
Although the plan’s focus is on nonlethal options, hunting isn’t the only approved measure for terminating a problem Canada goose.
In special cases, geese may be rounded up and euthanized. “Nest oiling” is one of the other extreme options available. Also known as “addling eggs,” a layer of corn oil is applied to unattended eggs in a nest. The oil seals the pores of the egg shell, preventing oxygen from getting in and killing the gosling-to-be before it hatches.
Kellner assured me that transparency is the name of the game when and if these measures ever become necessary. But euthanasia and nest oiling could be a solution if other tactics are used and there is no progress.
“The kind of ripe fruit, if you will, of that conversation is near an airport,” he said. “Bird strikes, especially Canada goose strikes to aircraft, can be extremely damaging and a direct human safety issue.”
Remember the “miracle on the Hudson,” the 2009 controlled crash of a U.S. Air flight that had just taken off from New York’s LaGuardia Airport? That plane lost all engine power after hitting a flock of Canada geese.
Controlling Canada geese populations is a balancing act. They are protected by federal law in accordance with the Migratory Bird Treaty Act as a “public trust resource.” Generally speaking it is illegal to harm them, but DNR does have a permit allowing it to undertake a limited number of actions outlined in the management plan.
“The DNR’s role is to manage the public trust and Canada geese are an issue of public trust,” Jones said. “And so we need to balance ecological and intrinsic value of this species, their recreational value. But then we also have to be aware that there are legitimate economic, health and safety concerns.”
At the time Congress enacted the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, birds were being driven to the brink of extinction by so-called “market hunters” who would sell the feathers and meat. The act had overwhelming support from conservationists and sport hunters, because both groups were alarmed by the dwindling numbers of waterfowl in the United States.
Canada geese were among the birds devastated by the surge of market hunting. Even after federal protection was extended to them, their numbers continued to decline as engineering projects drained waterways to reclaim land for agriculture and other purposes, destroying habitats the birds needed to survive.
By 1918, there had been no sightings of Canada geese in Iowa for 11 years. No Canada geese were seen in the state again until 1964, when a DNR program began reintroducing nesting pairs. By 1988, there was at least one nesting pair in each of Iowa’s 99 counties. Other states had similar success.
Fast on the heels of this restoration of the species came a boom in population as large numbers of Canada geese discovered the advantages of urban and suburban living, with short grass, an environment maintained year-round, and a lack of predators.
Canada geese have split into populations that still follow the old, long migratory routes, and ones that either migrate only short distances or take up permanent, or near-permanent, residence in a city. Resident geese start mating sooner than migratory ones, lay more eggs on average and have more of those eggs survive.
“Canada geese are an intelligent, long-lived species, therefore they have high survival rates,” Jones said. “They return to the same areas, and then they learn.”
That a species so close to eradication –there were none left in Iowa for most of the 20th century– was able to rebound with help from humans should be considered an impressive success story. But because so many people have negative interactions with Canada geese, the “ecological and intrinsic value” of these birds is not often discussed.
According to Dennis Thompson, president of the Iowa Ornithologists Union, a bird-watching group that welcomes everyone from amateurs to accomplished ornithologists, every birder has their favorite species, but most seem pretty lukewarm about Canada geese.
“I don’t think birders jump up and down about protecting Canada geese necessarily,” Thompson said. “It’s not a cause that birders tend to get behind, about either protecting them or removing them. Either way.”
That’s not to say a Canada goose can’t garner sympathy on occasion, even when it’s being a nuisance. Kellner recalled an incident from a few years ago when a Canada goose nested in the planters outside a heart clinic in West Des Moines. The bird was aggressive and chased heart patients around the parking lot.
“When the DNR staff member showed up, just to even verify what was going on … The number of people filming the officer interacting with the goose and yelling at the DNR officer to leave the bird alone was really high,” Kellner recounted. “So here we have a human threat issue where these heart patients are getting attacked, but we still have people that are patients of the building wanting the bird to be left alone.”
There isn’t a set timeline for the goose management program, Parks Manager Mike Gaul said. The city is currently looking to hire a contractor to start with aversive conditioning tactics in high frequency problem areas. Habitat modification will come as the city brainstorms park and stormwater retention developments.
The first part of the plan got underway in May, and is an attempt to deal with a stubborn, hard-to-manage animal that could undermine the goose management program. In other words, it’s aimed at humans.
As part of what will be a wider education effort, the city released a video featuring Gaul talking about goose management.
“Do not feed the geese. That’s the number one,” Gauls says in the video, before going on to explain the management program is trying to condition geese to choose nesting areas with less opportunity for conflict with humans, not to eliminate the geese.
The goose management plan makes this point, too, stating it would not “be appropriate” to “completely remove Canada geese from the city as they are part of the natural community.” It’s also “not possible” to do that, the plan concedes.
After all, the geese were here before Des Moines was. And since they returned in the 1960s, they’ve done a remarkable job of figuring out how to live here. These birds are well-traveled, intelligent individuals that are just trying to make a home here in Iowa — a fascinating and, dare I say, beautiful part of our ecosystem. And that’s something to honk about.
Swans vs. Geese: Living in Unexpected Harmony
As the Canada geese population grew in the 1990s, some Chicago suburbanites decided to fight waterfowl with waterfowl, and introduced swans into local ponds in hopes of driving out the geese. Swans aggressively defend their nesting areas, and have been known to kill geese in the wild. One problem: wild swans don’t live in the suburbs.
The swans you can buy are all human-raised and much more mellow than their wild cousins. They don’t mind sharing a pond with geese, if the geese stay away from the nest. Swans even attract more geese. Migrating flocks spot them and realize it’s a safe location to land. So, those suburban ponds ended up with not one, but two types of big birds that don’t want humans anywhere near them.
Lily DeTaeye is a Des Moines native and UI grad who is passionate about reading, wine and dogs. In addition to writing for Little Village, she is a singer-songwriter and touring Americana musician. She has since recovered from the trauma of being chased by Canada geese on the bike trail.
Additional reporting by Paul Brennan. This article was originally published in Little Village Central Iowa issue 004.