As the rain began to fall yesterday on Maryland's Eastern Shore, a gaggle of Canada geese lunched on a cornfield's leftover grain. The geese outnumbered the hunters 800-to-none -- a federally mandated advantage that may save the birds from a population free fall.
Three hunting seasons into a moratorium on shooting migratory Canada geese, the birds are showing signs of a resurgence, said Larry Hindman, a waterfowl project manager for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. With reports of a gosling baby boom last summer in northern Quebec, Hindman expects this winter's Maryland survey to show a significant population increase.
"We're quite optimistic, quite excited about that," he said yesterday -- adding that the turnaround seems so strong that plans are being hatched to possibly relax the hunting ban.
"I'd say that for the next couple of years, [hunting season] will probably be closed, but there are plans being made to look at the harvesting of geese," said Hindman, who is also chairman of the Canada Goose Committee for the Atlantic Flyway Council, an advisory panel to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Increasingly sophisticated population studies will allow wildlife officials to determine when hunting can be resumed.
"We want to be able to take some birds, because they are an important resource, but we don't want to affect the population growth," Hindman said. "It will depend on what the next couple of breeding seasons bring."
For centuries, Canada geese have migrated from their summer nesting grounds on the northeastern coast of Hudson Bay to the Eastern Shore. While the geese spend their winters in mid-Atlantic states from New York to North Carolina, nearly halfcome to the Shore, Hindman said.
Far enough south to avoid a deep freeze and blessed with grain fields for eating and wetlands for roosting, the Eastern Shore is ideal goose habitat. Every year, the geese begin to arrive in Maryland on Sept. 19, give or take a day or two. The sights and sounds -- the checkmark-shaped flight formation known as a skein, and the distinctive honking -- are signals of the season's change.
On the Eastern Shore, waterfowl hunting is a cultural institution, and a significant part of the economy. It is still legal to hunt ducks and "resident" Canada geese, birds that live here year-round.
By the mid-1970s, the Canada goose population in Maryland had peaked at about 650,000. But experts began noticing a decline in the number of birds about 10 years ago.
Because the adult birds have virtually no predators, their numbers depend almost exclusively on their birth rate, and mortality from hunting.
Thus, in 1988 hunting restrictions were imposed, including a reduction in the daily bag limit from three to one for parts of the season. But the decline continued, and in 1995, federal wildlife officials barred hunting of the migratory geese in the U.S. part of the Atlantic flyway. Canadian officials followed suit.
Last winter's survey of migratory geese in Maryland showed the extent of the decline. Only about 217,000 birds were counted. The chief reason for the decline: several late springs in Canada shortened the bird's breeding season and reduced the number of goslings born.
But, Hindman said, this summer 63,000 breeding pairs were counted in Canada -- compared with 46,000 the year before and 29,000 in 1995.
Also, experts estimated a reproduction rate of 4.5 eggs per nest, up from 3.5 per nest last year.
It was, he said, the best breeding season in a decade. With those encouraging reports, Hindman expects numbers to rise during aerial surveys this winter.
But the changes have brought complications. As the number of geese grows and as they become increasingly bold with no threat of being shot, they have become more of a pest for farmers.
"We've had numerous complaints about geese in winter wheat fields," Hindman said yesterday.
The 48-year-old wildlife management expert was watching about six dozen geese quietly graze on the tender green shoots of a winter wheat field at the Wye Island Natural Resource Area, a state-owned sanctuary about six miles off U.S. 50 in Queen Anne's County. With more than two decades of experience in the ways of Eastern Shore waterfowl, Hindman knows the birds' habits.
For instance, as the rain began, he knew the geese were likely to be found in fields, and not at ponds.
"We don't know why, but we know it's so," he said. "They feed a little bit, and they just kind of loaf around."
The Kentucky native knows the drama of seeing a flock of geese at sundown, and he knows the importance of waterfowl to the Shore's culture.
"I don't look at them as dumb animals," he said. "Around here, they're important to the tradition, they're important to the economy."
Pub Date: 10/27/97