Geese of a very different feather Residents: It's warm and buggy outside -- just right for goose hunting in Maryland, where the population of nonmigrating "resident" geese is going through the roof.

On the Bay

September 20, 1996|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

MARYLAND NATURAL Resources policeman Ray Harner is making his early season rounds through the heart of the best goose hunting the Chesapeake region has to offer these days:

Hagerstown. Boonsboro. Burkittsville.

Forget the Eastern Shore, Kent County cornfields, Dorchester County marshes and hunting blinds along the Choptank and Chester.

Think, rather, of Washington and Frederick counties, the golf courses and farm ponds of the sinuous upper Potomac and little trout streams like Beaver Creek.

The latter are where the goose action is these days. Also, bring bug repellent, and a cooler to preserve what you shoot, because it's 94 degrees outside.

If it seems a little early for hunting Canada geese, well, that's because goose season must open and shut before the geese arrive from Canada.

Confused? Welcome to the club. Waterfowl scientists and managers the length of the East Coast also are trying to adjust.

With remarkable speed, a huge flip-flop has occurred among the wild geese of the Atlantic flyway (Canada through the Carolinas). It shows nature's "age-old" patterns can be surprisingly mutable.

As many Canada geese are in the Atlantic flyway today as at any time in modern history -- upward of a million birds. But a dramatic shift has occurred in less than two decades between geese that migrate and those that don't.

In the late 1970s, almost all the Chesapeake's geese still came from flocks that winged north each spring to nest around Hudson Bay, returning each fall by the hundreds of thousands.

A decade of too-cold nesting weather, exacerbated by overhunting, drove these migrants to such a scarce state that hunting was finally closed last year throughout the flyway.

The protection is working. Nesting pairs in Canada are up; but bad weather again limited the numbers of young geese. The normal goose season will stay closed at least a few more years.

Meanwhile, the flyway is awash in geese of another feather. These so-called "resident" geese look like their migratory cousins, but they are descended from birds brought here in the past for live decoys, adorning parks and as pets.

They are from Midwestern subspecies of the Canada goose that never evolved as long-distance migrators. A decade ago, residents were less than 10 percent of the flyway's total population. Now they are more like 90 percent.

In the last five years, they have gone from about 100,000 to nearly a million; and most experts predict the rapid expansion will continue.

Officer Harner and state waterfowl managers, such as the DNR's Bill Harvey, say the buildup of resident geese was controlled until recently by the traditional long hunting season.

Now, the residents are flourishing at golf courses, urban parks, community ponds and other habitats. As white-tailed deer have already done, the geese are growing from the "oh, aren't they neat" stage, to "somebody do something about these pests."

A single goose can produce half a pound of fecal matter a day, so even a small flock can make golfing interesting, or pollute a pond in warm weather.

Farmers in some areas complain as much about geese eating summer crops as about deer, wildlife biologists say.

The population of resident geese, still relatively small at 30,000 to 50,000, is increasing rapidly enough that Maryland three years ago began an early September hunt.

So far, it has attracted an estimated 2,500 hunters annually, compared with the 45,000 to 50,000 who used to hunt migratory geese in the state.

So far the kill has not kept up with the ability of resident geese to reproduce.

The season must compete with Labor Day weekend and dove-hunting season. The weather is too warm, and the season must end before migratory geese begin appearing in late September, lest they be shot by mistake.

Location doesn't help either. The resident geese are most concentrated in Central and Western Maryland, not traditional goose-hunting areas.

It is also apparent, on a drive with Officer Harner, that the resident geese have found cover more protective than the deepest woods or the vastest marsh.

Between Hagerstown and Frederick, the land is increasingly turning from open space into an area fragmented by homes, roads, power lines and "farmettes."

Hunters cannot shoot from a road or within 150 yards of an occupied dwelling; and more and more, farms may be owned by city people who want to feed and observe geese on their pond, not allow hunting.

Some golf courses cope by getting "egg addling" permits from federal waterfowl officials. These allow eggs of nuisance geese to be shaken and placed back in the nest. Unaware that the embryos have died, the geese continue to brood. They would lay more if the eggs were removed.

The goose expansion is widespread. Chicago and Detroit have serious nuisance problems. Long Island has slaughtered them and given the meat to food banks. Pennsylvania shipped some geese to Arkansas.

It is part of a larger picture, in which deer, coyote, raccoons and even black bears, deprived of natural habitat, adapt all too well to the suburban landscape.

Some think this means nature is so resilient we need not worry about endangered species, which is the wrong lesson to draw.

Our manipulation of the eastern United States has proceeded for so long, on such a scale, that we are mostly left with species that are tough and adaptable; the fragile ones are mostly long gone.

The ones left, like the geese, may bring us ultimately to better ways to live with nature; but getting there won't be straightforward.

Pub Date: 9/20/96

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