Does untidiness mean their goose is cooked?

August 22, 1994|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,London Bureau of The Sun

London Expert marksmen are quietly shooting Canada geese on the royal grounds of St. James' Park in the heart of London.

The geese die at dawn like alien spies. They've been convicted enthusiastic overbreeding, destructive overeating, an aggressive attitude and unseemly toilet habits.

They befoul the footpaths, the lawns, the ponds, wherever their webbed feet tread.

Britons don't like their footpaths befouled. Signs all over London sternly warn dog owners against allowing their beasts to befoul the footpaths. It may be a national obsession.

A well-fed goose drops an unpleasant green dollop every three or four minutes. A busy flock can deposit a hundred pounds in a week.

"They cause an awful mess," moaned a spokesman for the Royal Parks.

And they're not even British.

The Canadas have been here 300 years and they're still somewhat snottily referred to as an "introduced species."

But it was, after all, King Charles II who "introduced" a brace or two into St. James' Park in 1665. He had them brought over from the Colonies, maybe from Maryland. He liked exotic wildfowl and wild women. He used to walk along the pond with his latest girlfriend, feeding the geese.

People still like to feed them -- and do, lavishly. That's one of the problems. And the Royal Parks people are not about to stop them.

"A traditional part of park life is to feed the birds," the parks spokesman says. "It's part of the pleasure of the park."

Canada geese are handsome birds, even elegant, wearing their black necks and heads, and white collars and breast like tuxedos at a garden party. They waddle a bit on the lawns at St. James', like well-fed monarchs, but they glide effortlessly through the pond and fly as gracefully as a corps de ballet.

But, unfortunately, Canada geese here don't fly much. They don't migrate, as they do on the Atlantic flyway migratory route over the Chesapeake Bay, where their magnificent V-shaped flights are a kind of benediction in the sky.

"In this country, Canada geese are a sedentary species," says Derek Niemann, of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. "They've become comfortable and they don't move very far."

And they breed, well, like geese. Just four pair of Canada geese nested in St. James' Park in 1965. Now between 400 and 700 roost there.

In all of Britain there are something like 68,000 Canadas. In 1968 there were 10,500. Their numbers are rising by 8 percent a year. When the 21st century arrives, experts expect there will be twice as many as today.

Like expatriate Americans from Henry James to T. S. Eliot, Canada geese have simply found British habitats excellent. You could hardly have a better address than St. James' Park, for example. And the Canadas have no natural enemies.

So the sharpshooters very quietly began to "cull" them. Very quietly indeed. They use silencers.

Maybe the shooters don't want to disturb the Queen, who lives in Buckingham Palace just beyond the west end of St. James', which a predecessor, Henry VIII, first created as a deer park from a mucky bit of marsh.

L Certainly no one wants to unduly arouse British bird lovers.

"We British are a soft touch for anything feathered," says Mr. Niemann of the bird society.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is, in fact, somewhat ambivalent about the Canada goose. It's not a native species, not threatened with extinction, and not affecting any native species, although in places like St. James' Park, they've become the dominant species and tend to bully the locals. Shooting the Canadas doesn't harm the species and may be helpful.

"We're not a welfare organization," Mr. Niemann says.

But Tony Banks, a Labor member of Parliament who ardently supports animal rights, already is upset over the 124 geese culled so far.

"There must be a better way of doing it than herding the geese together in this distressing way and shooting them under cover of darkness," Mr. Banks says.

As a matter of fact, the Department of the Environment put together the Canada Goose Working Group to explore ways of controlling them.

They've just published a pamphlet with nine proposals, including leaving them alone, scaring them, shooting them and pricking, waxing or hard-boiling their eggs -- "effective and humane but unlikely to reduce a local population unless continued for several years."

"Anything to do with controlling a species can be very emotive," says John Stephens, a member of the goose group.

"But when golfers get [droppings] all over their shoes, they tend to be vocal."

Mr. Stephens, as a matter of fact, was himself looking for a good recipe for roast goose.

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