On July 8, six wildlife biologists in navy blue U.S. Department of Agriculture T-shirts spent their morning chasing packs of Canada geese around Brooklyn, N.Y.’s Prospect Park. They corralled them with temporary fences and then placed them, three at a time, in turkey cages. The cages were then loaded into a truck and driven to a nearby warehouse where the geese were placed in a special chamber. Carbon dioxide was pumped in. Minutes later, the dead geese were loaded back into the truck, taken to a landfill, and buried.
The process was repeated until all 400 of the park’s resident Canada geese were dead. All that was left, according to joggers who passed through the park later that morning, were feathers floating on the pond.
New York City officials announced earlier this summer that they planned to rid the city of 800 geese in an effort to reduce the risk of jet engines choking on the five-kilogram fowl. (There have been 78 goose-plane collisions reported in New York in the past decade, including the most famous, when Capt. “Sully” Sullenberger was forced to land his US Airways jet on the Hudson River in January 2009 after it sucked geese into both engines.) It was originally reported that the cull was part of a larger scheme to kill 165,000 geese in the state, but officials say there is no master plan: that number is merely the difference between the 250,000 geese in New York State and what was determined a few years ago to be the “ideal” population of 85,000, says Diane Pence, chief of migratory bird management at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). Those assurances haven’t stopped the locals from accusing New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg of ordering a goose genocide. Last week, several dozen protesters gathered outside his Upper East Side townhouse with placards asking him to “give geese a chance.” “[The mayor] won’t stop until they’re extinct,” says Edita Birnkrant, the New York director of Friends of Animals.
Despite this cull being the biggest she’s ever heard of, Pence says New York’s gas chambers are unlikely to make much of a dent in overall numbers. Unless the city plans to gas geese every year and in every park, resident geese from other parks or even migratory geese flying through will eventually repopulate the areas, she says. That may be what happened after last year’s goose cull. Last July, in response to Sullenberger’s crash landing, Bloomberg announced he had hired the USDA to kill geese at all 17 city-owned parks within eight kilometres of an airport. Their goal was to kill 2,000; they netted 1,235. A year later, the city boasted that the population is 80 per cent lower at La Guardia Airport as a result of last year’s cull. But the numbers didn’t change at John F. Kennedy Airport. That’s because the National Parks Service wouldn’t allow geese to be killed in nearby Gateway National Park, says Farrell Sklerov, a spokesman for the city. It’s not surprising that geese would spread out from the park to the airport, says Pence. “They’re very mobile within a limited area.”
Animal activists have their own explanations for why the goose cull was repeated this year. “Read between the lines,” says Birnkrant. “The city has to clean up the excrement, which is a burden on the park system. [But] instead of cleaning up, it’s easier to kill them.”
There’s no question the excrement is considered a burden. The Atlantic Flyway Council, a group responsible for the protection of migratory birds in 17 eastern states and provinces, recommended lower goose populations in 2005—in part due to air-safety concerns, but also due to the increasing property damage from goose droppings on public parks, golf courses and beaches. They decided on a “target” population of 650,000 resident Canada geese. The year-round population had tripled from 400,000 in 1989 to nearly 1.2 million in 2005. The population explosion was the result of a decline in hunting coupled with an increase in ideal habitat in the form of parks and golf courses, says Scott Johnston, the population branch chief of the migratory-birds division of USFWS. Lawns provide plenty of grass to feed on, and urban areas have few natural predators, says Johnston. “The result was a population out of control.”
Since 2006, the USFWS has allowed the USDA to addle eggs (oiling them to prevent fertilization) or perform euthanasia upon request. The population has declined slightly since its 2005 peak to 970,000 in 2010, though only some of that can be attributed to addling and euthanasia, says Johnston.
In Canada, the Canadian Wildlife Service issues permits to addle eggs or kill geese, usually to farmers and owners of golf courses, says Jack Hughes, the Ontario director of bird-population management. While resident geese are considered “overabundant” in places like southern Ontario, he says authorizing the killing of multiple geese is rare in Canada. The city of Kelowna, B.C., had a permit to kill 50 geese a year starting in 2005 as part of an effort to reduce the pollution in Lake Okanagan. But that permit was yanked last summer after an animal-rights lawyer challenged its legality. Hughes says CWS has never issued permits to kill geese in the name of air-passenger safety. It’s not that collisions don’t occur: 1,202 birds smacked into Canadian planes in 2008, according to a Transport Canada report. Of these, a little over half were identified by species and 16 were Canada geese. Toronto’s Pearson International Airport scares birds away by releasing 30 trained falcons and a bald eagle every morning. Specially trained border collies are used at Vancouver Airport. Both airports use lights and sound cannons and plant tall grass that geese don’t like to land in—far from deadly tactics.