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Canada Geese as a Suburban Wildlife Issue

Feeding Geese


Almost without exception, the topic of feeding Canada geese comes up in areas where their presence is controversial. To feed, or not to feed? Behind this apparently simple question are matters such as what is meant by feeding, what is hoped to be gained by banning feeding, and if banned, where will it be forbidden.

What is typically meant by feeding is probably better described as "direct" feeding. That is, children and adults who visit parks for the express purpose of presenting ducks and geese with bread, popcorn and the like. Those who partake in this age-old activity enjoy the thrill of interacting with wildlife up-close and personal. A substantial portion of park-goers engage in feeding waterfowl and consider it to be a legitimate park activity. However, a more important form of feeding, "indirect" feeding, has far more infuence on the population and distribution of geese, yet it is given almost no attention, or worse, ignored. "Indirect" feeding will be discussed shortly.

Faced with the wrath of a small number of complainers, town officials, as a first line of appeasement, seek to pass laws forbidding people from feeding Canada geese. These laws are based on the assumption that geese come to the parks specifically to eat handouts, and that if such food supplies are cut off, the number of geese will diminish, and hence the conflict will evaporate.

Indeed, there are laws and ordinances that ban the feeding of waterfowl in municipalities all over the country. Upon passing such feeding bans, politicians have often been quoted as saying in effect that "this is a good first step." Actually, what has really been accomplished is an easy political win. Those who seek to protect the interests of geese let it go as harmless, and those who are intolerant of geese naively consider these laws a victory. Are these bans effective? In general, they have very little practical effect, and this inevitably sets the stage for drastic actions.

While geese and other waterfowl clearly enjoy eating bread, and know where to anticipate its disbursement, local populations are not established based on the availability of these handouts. Geese use more biologically relevant critera in determining whether a region is suitable for them to carry out their daily or seasonal activities, including the safety provided by water and the constant availability of food in the form of grasses.

To the dismay of golfers and greenskeepers, golf courses are irresistible to geese despite the fact that no "direct" feeding takes place in these areas. The golf course example reveals that the more pervasive "indirect" feeding (in the form of turf grass) is the primary factor that determines the attractiveness of an area to Canada geese. "Direct" feeding is merely a bonus, and doing away with it has negligible effect.

Human-Canada goose conflicts are greatest in areas where ponds have been usurped to become part of housing developments or intensively landscaped public parks. The gratuitious (meaning not serving a function) use of turf grass in these areas is a formula for interspecies tension. Effectively reducing conflict means reducing the amount of this "indirect" feeding. Reducing the use of lawn in favor of ground cover and shrubs - especially in and around areas where conflict exists - is a must.

Despite the fact that they know better, government wildlife managers are quick to recommend feeding bans to towns when conflicts arise. The Coalition has learned that such recommendations are more insidious than they might appear. By making the suggestion that feeding be banned, wildlife managers are biding their time to give the illusion that they are not anxious to get on with an extermination program. Eventually, their default preference that the offending wildlife be killed surfaces with the full influence of the agency's power. In the meantime, by pushing for feeding bans, they can fulfill their more general goals of keeping the public both physically and psychologically distanced from wildlife. Wildlife managers know that if public interaction with wildlife is maintained or increases, the public will naturally become more protective of it and less tolerant of wildlife killing, such as "sport" hunting. Reductions in hunting would result in serious economic losses to their agency.

The Coalition advocates the use of strategic, rather than complete, feeding bans. Strategic feeding laws give municipalities the option of restricting the feeding of waterfowl to certain areas in parks where space permits. The idea is that, while "direct" feeding has little or no effect on absolute regional populations of geese, it can be used strategically to attract geese to areas within the park where their presence is not controversial (away from walkways, parking lots, park entrances, etc.). Two such laws have been passed in New York State.




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