For a month and a half, hunters have been watching flights of Canada geese coming into Maryland, and with the opening of the hunting season for these waterfowl still two weeks away, there may be a stirring in the minds of some that perhaps the population of Canadas is strongly on the rebound.
Larry Hindman, waterfowl management supervisor for the Department of Natural Resources' Forest, Park and Wildlife Service, said Monday that probably is not the case. Rather, Hindman said, unseasonably cold temperatures to the north probably have forced the Canadas south early.
"We did see an unusual number of birds arrive here in mid-September," Hindman said. "And perhaps that might lead one to believe the production [on the breeding grounds in Canada] might have been better than anticipated. But that is purely speculation.
"We really won't know until the hunting season starts and we start to take a look at the age ratio in the harvest."
Another indicator will be aerial surveys taken by the FPWS, the first of which is scheduled for the week of Nov. 11.
"Really, nothing has changed since we got the fall flight forecast," Hindman said. "In terms of numbers, we were told that the Atlantic population, where we get our birds, would be similar to last season."
The midwinter count last January showed approximately 250,900 birds. The November 1989 count was 287,000 birds. The 1989 midwinter count was 263,400 and the November 1988 count was 295,000.
On all counts, the population of Canadas is far lower than it was during the late 1970s and early 1980s when the population numbered some 600,000 birds. But if the figures come in this year around the rate of the past two, it probably is an indicator that the rapid decline of the middle and latter years of the 1980s has been arrested.
Whether the population will begin to expand rather than simply stabilize is dependent on two factors: annual survival rates and habitat conditions on the breeding grounds.
"In terms of numbers, we are at the mercy of the weather on the breeding grounds," Hindman said. "It depends mostly on whether the breeding grounds are free of ice and snow to have a good hatch. In the last few years, it [warming] has been delayed, so production has been below normal."
As a result, the hunting season for Canadas also has been more restricted than it once was. This season, there again will be a split bag limit (one bird daily on hunting days from Nov. 14 until Dec. 8; two birds daily on hunting days from Dec. 10-Jan. 12), and the reason is conservation.
From 1962 to 1974, when Maryland's population of Canadas was increasing, the adult survival rate was 82 percent, meaning that 82 of 100 birds lived from one year to the next. Between 1984 and 1986, after harvest regulations were loosened and hunting pressure increased, the adult survival rate dropped to near 70 percent.
Waterfowl managers have determined that a survival rate of 76 percent is the turning point -- below 76 percent, the population decreases; above 76 percent, the population increases.
In 1987, the adult survival rate was 61 percent, and 85 to 90 percent of the deaths of adult Canada geese can be attributed to hunters' harvest. Hindman said that the decreases in Maryland stocks can be directly attributed to the success or failure of Maryland hunters.
"The banding information suggests rapid migration to this state," Hindman said of tagging surveys taken to determine where birds are killed. "So I don't think they are exposed to hunting to any great degree north of us."
Also, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, Hindman said, have delayed the opening of their seasons to allow the southward passage of birds, which helps them avoid harvest in those states in the first part of October.
Once the season opens Nov. 14, a Wednesday opening calculated to perhaps restrict the number of hunters who can be in the field and offset what traditionally has been the highest kill rate of the season, hunting success will depend largely on the number of younger birds in the fall flight.
"It is usually the young that are dumber and decoy better and give the better hunting success," Hindman said.
In an attempt to ensure that the geese entering Maryland will have ample food, the DNR has contracted with landowners under the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program to leave some standing forage in select areas. The program is funded, Hindman said, by revenues from non-resident hunting licenses. The project operated as a pilot program last year.
"Most of these areas are pretty much refuge areas already, not state or federal refuges, but on private lands that are pretty much not hunted," Hindman said. "It will be a place for birds to feed undisturbed without worrying about being shot at. And if we get snow and cold temperatures like we had last December, those places are going to be really important to the birds."
The forage left for the waterfowl in high-use goose areas, Hindman said, consists largely of standing corn and permanent pasture.