As I approached, the goose crouched low on her nest. When I breached her comfort zone, she headed for the safety of nearby water and with raucous cries told me she was not pleased with my presence. Her mate soon swam across the lake and joined her protest.
Peering into the nest I saw six, large, buff-colored eggs. I quickly photographed the nest and left. The goose soon returned, and a few weeks later, each egg produced a fluffy, yellow chick.
Forty years ago, few Canada geese nested in Nebraska. Today, thousands do, many in unlikely places. This pair hatched its brood in the shadow of office and apartment buildings at a park surrounding Holmes Lake in Lincoln.
The larger number of geese nesting in Nebraska can be traced to work by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and others to restore the giant Canada goose, Branta canadensis maxima, to its native range in the state and across the Great Plains. Their success has increased opportunities for hunters and others who enjoy watching and listening to this majestic species.
But the population growth has caused problems in urban areas, especially in Lincoln and Omaha. Some golfers and lakeside homeowners complain there are too many geese. Commission biologists do not believe the goose population has reached the problem level of other states. But they don't want it to. Changes in goose management are coming, possibly including an early hunting season in September in east-central Nebraska to keep numbers in check.The Canada Goose
There are 11 subspecies of Canada geese. A 12th subspecies, the Bering Canada goose, is extinct. While the subspecies vary, they share similar marking and coloring, down to the trademark black neck and white cheek patch. Their breasts are tan and white and their backs
Biologists further divide Canada geese into 20 distinct populations, defined by where they nest and winter, and the routes they take between those points. Six of these populations, including five subspecies, frequent Nebraska. One, the giant Canada, lives in the state year-round.
Some geese stop only briefly in Nebraska during their migration between Arctic nesting grounds and the Gulf Coast states. Others fly in from the north and stay all winter. Some migrating Canadas never make it this far south, wintering on Lake Oahe or other Missouri River reservoirs in the Dakotas and Montana. Some nest in Nebraska and fly south for the winter.
Cold and snow cover determine when most geese migrate. As long as the wetlands, lakes and ponds on which geese roost and the fields in which they feed remain open, they have no reason to move south. Migration usually begins in September. Geese typically begin arriving in Nebraska en masse in mid-November and the wintering population peaks in late-December or early-January.
A mild winter to the north means fewer birds in Nebraska. If the snow line stops at the South Dakota border, Nebraska might be inundated with geese. But if winter hits Nebraska early and hard, many geese fly over the state, although some might also move back north during warm spells.
Some geese stay regardless of weather. Even in the coldest winters, active geese keep patches of large reservoirs from freezing, and warmwater springs and returns from
Migrating geese follow the snow line north in the spring, usually arriving in Nebraska by early-March.
Wild Canada geese can live more than 20 years and many survive 10 years or more. Most geese mate for life, but aggressive males occasionally steal a goose from another gander. If a Canada loses its mate, it will find another.
Adult geese return to the same breeding territories each spring, as do most sub-adult birds. About a third of two-year-old geese attempt to nest, and nearly all three-year-old birds nest. In Nebraska, birds begin claiming territories and initiating nests in late-March and early-April.
Geese are adaptable. Pairs nest on the ground, on muskrat houses, on hay bales, in man-made nesting tubs, or in other places close to water and food. After forming a nest bowl with available vegetation, the female lays from one to 15 eggs, with an average nest containing five. She lays an egg every day and a half, plucking down from her breast to line the nest during the process. Incubation begins when the last egg is laid and all eggs hatch within a 24-hour period 26 to 28 days later. The male defends the pair's territory.
The young are able to swim soon after they hatch. At that time, adults and goslings move to a brood-rearing area, sometimes several miles from the nest. These areas typically have open water and shorelines with low grass to graze. With the help of their parents, goslings find their own food. Adults molt their wing feathers when the chicks are about four weeks old and remain flightless for about five weeks. Goslings take flight at 50 to 70 days, depending on the subspecies. For giant Canada young in Nebraska, first flight usually occurs in mid-July.Restoration Efforts
Before Euroamerican settlement, Canada geese, primarily giant Canadas, were native, year-round residents of the area that is now Nebraska. They occupied the wetlands, natural lakes and rivers throughout the state. The size of the goose population before
Griswold went on to predict "the absolute extinction of Canada geese within a period of not more than 20 to 25 years." He had good reason to think so. Giant Canadas were thought to have been wiped out by 1920.
Throughout the giants' native range in the north-central United States and south-central Canada, hungry settlers hunted the birds year-round and collected their eggs during the spring.
"The pioneers pretty well took care of them," said Nick Lyman of North Platte, a long-time Commission waterfowl biologist. "It was survival food. That's what it was, I'm sure."
Settlers drained many wetlands as they broke land to build farms. Lost habitat and unregulated market hunting appeared to doom the giant Canada. The last record of geese nesting in Nebraska was in 1904.
Migratory populations of geese did not suffer the same fate as the giants. These migrant geese spent part of the year face to face with the pioneers, but on their breeding grounds farther north, they were safe. In 1918, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act strengthened regulations states had passed beginning at the turn of the century that set hunting seasons, and banned egg collecting and sale and commercial harvest of waterfowl. But many thought the protection had come too late for the giant Canada.
In the early-1960s, Harold C. Hanson, an authority on geese, documented the the existence of giant Canadas in Minnesota. Subsequent searches turned up more than 60,000 wild and captive giants across Canada and the Midwest.
Credit for the species' survival goes to the same people who caused its decline. Pioneers kept barnyard flocks of domesticated giant Canadas as a source of eggs and meat. Other flocks used by hunters as live decoys were released into the wild or donated to parks when the practice was banned in 1935. These geese were used as breeding stock to restore the giant Canada across its native range.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) made the first attempt to restore Canada geese in Nebraska when it released 10 birds on the Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge. That effort and others that followed in the 1950s and 1960s met limited success, as did attempts to restore geese on the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge.
The Commission began its own program to restore giant Canada geese in the late-1960s with a few breeding pairs at Schilling Wildlife Management Area (WMA) near Plattsmouth and at Clear Creek WMA near Lewellen. In 1969, those birds were moved to Sacramento-Wilcox WMA near Wilcox, where production intensified.
Reintroduction began in the Sandhills, where 4,140 flightless goslings were released on lakes in Rock, Holt, Cherry and Grant counties between 1970 and 1983. Geese imprint on the area where they first take flight and usually return there to nest. This tendency increased the success of restoration programs.
"As soon as we started letting some big releases out, like 200 or 400 birds, things really started popping," Lyman said. By 1980, the program had reached its goal of establishing a self-sustaining population in the Sandhills. Commission biologists currently estimate the Sandhills breeding population at 15,000 birds.
During the same time period, a captive breeding flock at Branched Oak State Recreation Area near Lincoln produced 500 goslings that were released there and at nearby Twin Lakes WMA. Those birds have since expanded their range throughout Lancaster County and into neighboring counties. The area now contains 5,000 breeding birds.
In 1984 the Commission's efforts shifted west to the North Platte River Valley between Lake McConaughy and the Nebraska-Wyoming border, and to the Crescent Lake refuge. The breeding flock at Sacramento-Wilcox WMA was expanded and over 10 years, 5,000 goslings were released, including birds relocated from Fort Collins, Colorado. Area landowners and sportsmen's clubs erected nesting structures along the river and in ponds and wetlands in the valley to improve reproductive success. The project boosted the breeding population from less than 200 in 1982 to 3,000 today.
Between 1994 and 1997, 1,200 goslings were released at sites with suitable habitat throughout the state, including locations along the North Loup, Platte and Missouri rivers. In 1997, the Commission ended its restoration program and the breeding stock was given to interested Nebraskans.
Recent private restoration efforts have also been successful in several areas. Some groups receive yearling birds trapped and relocated from urban areas where they have become a nuisance. Most Nebraska habitats that are suitable for geese now have geese, and the state's estimated breeding population numbers 32,000.
More than 120,000 goslings were raised in captivity and released, or trapped and relocated in Central Flyway states, including Nebraska, between 1967 and 1999. Those efforts, which have ended, resulted in significant growth in what biologists classify as the
Tim Moser, a goose specialist in the USFWS regional office in Denver, said spring breeding surveys in the north-central United States averaged nearly 400,000 geese between 2000 and 2002 and closely represents the Great Plains population. That number also is increasing nine percent annually.
The Hi-Line population of Canada geese, another group that benefited from restoration efforts in the Central Flyway, has increased 10 percent annually, climbing from between 30,000 and 50,000 birds in the 1970s to between 200,000 and 250,000 today.
Restoration efforts throughout the United States and Canada fueled a three percent annual increase in the North American Canada goose populations since 1955, Moser said. That was driven primarily by the 10 percent annual growth since 1968 in the breeding population of Canada geese in the lower 48 states, which now totals 3.2 million birds.Goose Hunting
Before the restoration efforts, seeing a goose was a rare event in most corners of Nebraska during waterfowl season. When a hunter was lucky enough to shoot one, it was worth bragging about.
"I remember as a kid, a guy got a goose and brought it into the bar and we all had drinks over it," said Gary Kuehn of Hartington, a member the Tri-County Sportsmen's Club, which continues to restore geese in northeastern Nebraska.
Lyman remembered the Canada goose having a similar aura in the North Platte area in the early-1960s. "When I moved here, if somebody killed a goose they had their picture taken at the paper," he said.
The exception was Garden County on the North Platte River. The Garden County State Game Refuge was created by the state in 1925 to protect waterfowl year-round.
The river and the area within 110 yards of either side of its high banks have since been off limits to waterfowl hunting, but the crop fields and meadows up and down the valley, and the river in adjacent counties, have not. For years, said Lyman, these places, including the controlled hunting area at Clear Creek WMA, located on the eastern edge of the refuge in Keith County, were the only places in the state where geese could be hunted with an expectation of regular success.
Annual surveys of geese wintering on the Platte River system, including the North Platte and South Platte rivers, have been conducted since 1960. During the 1960s, the North Platte River held an average of 87 percent of the 6,300 geese wintering on the system, with most between Lisco and Lake McConaughy.
In the 1990s, the average wintering population on the North Platte was about 49,000. In January 2004, the midwinter survey found approximately 176,000 geese on the reach, an all-time high.
Restoration contributed a large part of that growth. Between the state line and Scottsbluff, an average of 88 geese were counted each winter in the 1960s, including six years when biologists found none. In the 1990s, the average count mushroomed to more than 6,000. In 2004, nearly 48,000 birds were counted on that reach.
While it does not hold as many geese as the North Platte River, the number of geese wintering on the Platte River in central Nebraska has grown more rapidly. Between North Platte and Central City, the wintering population increased from a few hundred in the 1960s to more than 25,000 in the 1990s. The area now claims a third of the geese wintering on the Platte rivers, many drawn to sandpits created by gravel mining operations.
In all, the number of geese wintering in Nebraska has increased substantially, climbing from an average of fewer than 10,000 in the 1960s to 150,000 in the 1990s. Wintering counts peaked at 386,000 in 1997. Migrating geese make up a large portion of the survey. Like a hunter's decoy spread, Nebraska's large resident flock attracts migrating geese that might otherwise fly past.
"They bring them in and they keep them here," said Mark Landgren of Lincoln.
Landgren, who died in a car accident in Canada in June, began hunting geese in the Lincoln area about 20 years ago, after the restoration effort in Lancaster County ended. Along with his hunting partner, Don Malcom, and their many guests, Landgren spent almost every
In their early years of hunting, they recovered leg bands that showed most birds were giant Canadas raised locally. While their harvest has increased annually, the number of banded birds has declined. Now, their season bag is made up primarily of small, migrating Canadas and large geese from other areas. "They remember our dog and pony show," Landgren said of the local birds.
"You can tell the big [local] geese," Malcom added. "They will come up to the edge of your decoys and slide off."
The Lincoln men are two of many waterfowlers who have taken advantage of the increase in geese.
Statewide, the goose harvest averaged more than 72,000 between 1992 and 2001, six times more than in the 1960s. Twice, it topped 120,000 birds. About 85 percent of the harvest is large geese. The increase was similar throughout the Central Flyway, where harvest is approaching a million birds. In response to more geese, the hunting season was increased in the late-1990s from 72 to 95 days and the daily bag limit increased from two to three.
While hunters are now the main benefactors of the restoration efforts, they also supported restrictions that helped the flocks grow. The Sandhills was closed to goose hunting during the 1970s. It opened to hunting in 1980, with a one goose per year bag. In 1987, the limit increased to two birds per year and where it remained until 1994, when the limit increased to one per day and the season limit was removed.
In the North Platte Valley, landowners voluntarily closed portions of their land and water to create additional refuges to encourage birds to stay in the area longer. The limit on geese in the area was reduced to one a day during the restoration. The opening day of the hunting season also was pushed later than in the rest of the state, and remains there today. This allows migrating birds to arrive before the season opens, reducing hunting pressure that would otherwise be directed entirely at the local nesting flock.Nuisance Geese
Most people enjoy geese. But few appreciate hundreds of birds overgrazing the grass on a lawn or golf course, or when they cover public areas with droppings, or when a territorial gander attacks someone who passes its mate's nest.
In some cases, man has invited the trouble. New developments often include ponds and bluegrass and fescue lawns. These features attract prospective home or business owners, but many developers might as well put up a neon sign flashing, "Welcome geese."
"If you build a pond in the eastern part of state, you can expect Canada geese coming in there and nesting or using that habitat," said Mark Vrtiska, waterfowl program manager with the Commission. "That's not to say every pond will [attract geese], but you can expect it in an urban environment." In urban environments, geese are tolerant of each other and will nest closer together than they do otherwise, within 10 feet in some cases, meaning a small island might attract several pairs.
Geese are tolerant of humans, and in cities they face few predators, which makes this productive species more productive. Without management, three pairs of nesting geese on a pond or lake can multiply to 50 birds within five years and more than 300 in 10 years.
Those numbers illustrate the problems facing the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area, which covers 2,400-square miles, 37 percent of which is made up of 3,000 lakes, ponds and wetlands. Left unchecked, biologists estimate the area could support 250,000 geese. But careful management has limited the goose population to about 25,000 birds.
Since 1983, the USFWS has allowed early hunting seasons for resident Canada geese in the area around the Twin Cities. Hunting also is allowed within city limits where open spaces permit the safe discharge of shotguns. Nest destruction is permitted, and many geese have been trapped and relocated. Others have been trapped, butchered and distributed to food banks. The actions are not without controversy, especially from animal rights groups that prefer nonlethal methods.
Communities across the northern United States are faced with similar problems and are looking for solutions. Concentrations of geese can cause thousands of dollars of damage to lawns and golf courses. Agricultural depredation is also a problem in some areas. Concerns have been raised about goose droppings affecting water quality and posing health risks. Moser said studies have found some pathogens in the droppings that could affect human health, "but generally it's in an low amount and low frequency and most health lab people think the risk to humans is very minimal."
In Nebraska, most complaints come from "people who just don't like stepping in goose poop," said Vrtiska.
But the greatest threat geese pose is to aircraft. Between 1990 and 2002, more than 45,000 instances of civil aircraft striking birds were reported.
In cases that the bird was positively identified, 668 involved Canada geese. Many more were identified simply as geese or waterfowl. The collisions caused nine injuries. In 1995, a U.S. Air Force Boeing 707 AWACS jet flew into a flock of geese while taking off from Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage, Alaska. Several of the birds went through the plane's engines, causing a crash that killed all 24 crew members.
In Nebraska, airports including Eppley, Scottsbluff and Offutt Air Force Base in Bellevue are dealing with Canada geese. The Lincoln Airport, Lincoln Parks Department, Capitol Beach Homeowners Association and the Commission have reduced the number of geese near the airport.
Flightless geese trapped at Capitol Beach Lake, south of the airport, have been relocated. At Bowling Lake, west of the airport, several pairs of geese nested on an island. Each year, there were more birds where none were wanted. "The problem was cured to a large extent by putting a bridge out to that island," Vrtiska said.
A U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal Damage Control agent works full-time on a hazing program at the Lincoln Airport to keep geese and other birds out. The work has been effective; few geese loaf or feed at the airport. But work to discourage geese and other birds from crossing the airport's flight path continues.
"We recognize there are a lot of local geese and quite frankly we don't care where they are as long as they're not flying through the approaches to our runways," said Bob McNally, director of operations at the airport.
The Commission traps and relocates juvenile geese from urban areas where they have become nuisances, but only when problems are severe. Vrtiska said this program has kept numbers in check, but it is expensive, consuming hundreds of worker-hours. The effort also is a short-term fix. While juveniles might not return to the site, adults often come back the following year to hatch another brood. The Commission is now looking to other measures as it develops a management plan that addresses urban geese.
That plan will be guided by another awaiting final approval by the USFWS. If approved as proposed, the federal Resident Canada Goose Management plan will give states the flexibility to manage problems on a local level. It would permit techniques such as aggressive harassment, nest destruction, relocation and culling programs, and increased hunter harvest.
The Commission has a federal permit that allows the destruction of some nests to discourage geese from occupying areas where they are not welcome. If eggs are taken or destroyed, geese renest. Instead, eggs are sprayed with oil or shaken to kill the embryos and then left in the nest. The goose will then continue to incubate.
Vrtiska said the Commission also encourages property owners to take steps to keep geese away and to keep numbers in check. Geese like open shorelines, so planting shrubs or other vegetation that limit their visibility may discourage them from using an area. Installing fences around yards, turning off aerators or fountains to allow ponds to freeze sooner in winter, and deploying scare tactics are other measures property owners can take. The Lincoln Parks and Recreation Department has successfully used a trained border collie to harass geese at parks and golf courses in the city.
The Schuyler Golf Club is deploying a trained black Labrador retriever to haze geese on its course this year. A few geese were released in the area in the mid-1980s. Course manager Brad Sock said more than 20 birds remained year-round on the course and in an adjacent park and lake.
Many of the geese nest along the Platte River a mile south of the course. But when the chicks hatch, Sock said, "Pair after pair will be walking up the ditch bringing their chicks into town. They know it's a safe haven here."
During the winter, the resident birds have attracted up to 1,500 migrant geese to the course's fairways. Warm water discharged from a meatpacking plant into a stream that runs through the course prevents it from freezing, giving birds a year-round water source.
While Sock could do without the geese at times, others enjoy them. Some bring five-gallon buckets of grain to feed them.
That's the worst thing that can happen in a problem area, Vrtiska said. "These birds don't need to be fed. They will make it through the winter."
Vrtiska said when the Commission responds to a complaint, a third of the people affected typically want all geese removed, a third are indifferent and a third "absolutely don't want us even touching them.
"We get caught in the middle," Vrtiska said.
He suggested that homeowner associations and communities develop plans that define the number of geese that will be tolerated and how problems they cause will be addressed.Future Management
The overlap in migratory and resident Canada goose populations makes managing the flocks difficult. Increasing hunting season lengths or bag limits might increase pressure on a migratory subpopulation, causing an unwanted decline in its numbers. As problems with resident geese have increased, states have implemented special hunting seasons that target these birds.
The seasons typically are held in September, before migrating geese arrive from the north. Some are held after migrating geese have moved on. Moser said all 17 states in the Atlantic Flyway have special seasons, as do 11 of the 14 Mississippi Flyway states.
In the Pacific Flyway, there are special seasons in western Colorado and Wyoming, Oregon and Washington. In 1996, South Dakota became the first state in the Central Flyway to hold an early season. Special seasons there now account for more than 20 percent of the state's goose harvest. Other Central Flyway states with special seasons are Kansas, North Dakota and Oklahoma.
Nebraska will join that list if the Commission approves an early season in east-central Nebraska at its July meeting. The proposed season would run concurrently with the early teal season September 11-19.
States also control resident flocks by opening regular hunting seasons as early as the USFWS allows, Moser said.
The Commission banded more than 26,000 Canadas as part of a study that identified three distinct subpopulations of Canada geese in Nebraska - the Sandhills, North
Dispersal and survival of the three documented subpopulations varies. Of harvested geese that had been banded in the Sandhills, half were shot in Nebraska, and 40 percent were killed in Kansas. Up to 90 percent of the harvested geese banded in the Panhandle and Lancaster County are shot in Nebraska, most in the areas where they were banded. The Panhandle geese are the most likely to be harvested.
The tendency of the Lancaster County flock to remain in the area indicates those birds can be managed with an early season. This will be increasingly important as Lincoln and Omaha grow and development closes more land to hunting. That is why Vrtiska wants to be proactive.
"Other states may have hit a crisis situation and then implemented a plan," Vrtiska said. "We're actually going into it where we're not at that crisis stage but where we still may be able to get ahead of the population."
The Commission is also considering other measures, including eliminating the waterfowl refuges at Branched Oak, Twin and Conestoga lakes near Lincoln.
Opening the lakes to hunting might increase the harvest of resident geese. But it could also decrease harvest by encouraging more geese to move into Lincoln and by reducing field hunting opportunities around the lakes. Vrtiska said he believes the need to keep goose numbers in check makes eliminating the refuges worth trying.
The Panhandle and Sandhills subpopulations of geese might be declining, Vrtiska said. The Sandhills flock has not filled the habitat available there. Drought has reduced water levels in Sandhills lakes and with it the muskrat population, which Lyman suspects has reduced Canada nesting success.
It is not that there are too many geese in the state, according to Vrtiska, but "too many geese in some places."
He said, "We want to recognize that these birds are a very valuable resource and we can't lose sight of that. Even though they may be causing problems for us and someone may not like them, there is somebody that does."
Lyman and Vrtiska want to maintain the Canada goose's prestige as a trophy and a symbol of the wild. They hope with careful management, the guttural honk of the Canada, once a harbinger of spring and fall, will continue to inspire Nebraskans.