Two rare Aleutian geese take to the skies for trip to Russia

September 28, 1992|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,Staff Writer

A mating pair of Aleutian Canada geese begin their journey today from the Baltimore Zoo to Russia, as part of an international effort to re-establish the rare and threatened birds in the Pacific islands off northern Asia.

Fred Beall, curator of birds at the zoo, said the 8-year-old male and 7-year-old female will be shipped by plane to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Anchorage, Alaska. On Wednesday, wildlife experts will send the Baltimore birds and nine other mating pairs from other zoos to a newly built breeding center on Russia's Kamchatka peninsula.

The Aleutian birds, a subspecies of the Canada goose, are much smaller than their cousins on the mainland -- about the size of a mallard. They are also darker in color and have a distinguishing white ring at the base of their necks.

Brian Anderson, an endangered species specialist with the wildlife service in Anchorage, said that until this century there were two populations of the geese.

One nested in the Aleutian chain and migrated south in the winter along the west coast of North America. The other lived in the Kuril and Komandorskiye Islands off the eastern coast of Asia and made a seasonal trip south to Japan.

Beginning in the early 1900s, Mr. Anderson said, American and Soviet trappers released fox on the Pacific islands belonging to both countries. These predators gradually decimated the geese, which apparently could not adapt to nesting sites on the nearby continents.

On the American islands, the number of geese dwindled to the point they were listed as endangered. But following a 20-year recovery program, their numbers have increased to 7,800, and they have been reclassified as merely "threatened."

In Asia, Mr. Anderson said, "the birds were extirpated totally. There was no place where the Japan-migrating birds survived."

Russia, with the help of the U.S. and Japan, has built a center where geese from Baltimore, the St. Louis Zoo, the San Diego Zoo, the St. Charles Waterfowl Observatory in Saginaw, Mich., and other institutions can hatch new goslings.

There is another problem. There are no Aleutian geese left to teach the goslings the migration routes south. So the young birds will be raised by mainland-nesting bean geese, which also winter in Japan.

Meanwhile, Russian wildlife specialists are removing foxes from the Pacific islands, to permit the geese to return. (Similar efforts are also under way in the United States.) Both the U.S. and Japan have agreed to strict limits on hunting of the birds.

Baltimore's mating pair, acquired in 1987, lived on an island in a pond near the penguin exhibit. They hatched 13 young, 10 of which have survived. Those birds will become part of a pool of new nesting pairs.

While zoo breeding programs have been successful and the wild birds are doing well in their North American range, Mr. Anderson is anxious to re-create the situation that existed before the turn of the century.

"We feel it will benefit the species in the long run if we get them re-established in the Asian portion of their range as well," he said.

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