Wisconsin’s great naturalist Aldo Leopold worried about the world his children would inherit and whether a species – like the passenger pigeon – was at the hands of in his classic book, A Sand County Almanac, before his death in 1946. could die out man. “I hope to leave them with good health, an education, and possibly even a competency. But what do you do with these things when there are no more deer in the hills and no more quails in hiding? … What if there is no goose music? “
He devotes an entire chapter of the book to Canada Geese, mesmerized by the haunting calls of the honking as he watched the Vs of the herds fly south in autumn and return north as spring arrived in Wisconsin. For him and his close family at The Shack on the lower Wisconsin River, goose music was the exciting harbinger of the next season that was just around the corner.
If Leopold were still alive in 2021, he would find it ironic that he predicted there would be no goose music. Canada geese have been at the forefront of an unnatural wildlife explosion for certain species. In a perfect storm of environmental change caused by a warming world, numbers of a few species like Canada geese exploded. Geese no longer had to migrate to the southern states to find open water and ready-made food. For Canada geese, the northern states are as attractive as the bayous of Louisiana to spend the winter – and they didn’t have to fly 2,000 miles to get there. An open river in Wisconsin and a picked corn field had all it needed.
Not having to make two long north-south trips each year, Canada Goose’s numbers skyrocketed. The geese now living and breeding year-round in Wisconsin are booming – up to 148,293, a 27 percent increase from 2008 and a 71 percent increase from the historical mean of 46 years, according to the DNR. Michigan had 9,000 Canada Geese in 1970. Today there are 300,000
Giant flocks of geese now live year round in warmer, free flowing northern rivers that provide them with the open water and food they need. Winter in Wisconsin is now coming weeks later than normal in 1946. So the herds stay longer – especially in mild El Nino winters. Thanks to climate change and the warm water and steady flow of the Red Cedar River downstream of the Rice Lake sewage treatment plant, hundreds of geese are extending their stay well into February.
Should we be concerned with huge flocks of Canada geese on the river for months? If we want a clear river with minimal weeds, it should. Aquatic weeds are phosphorus limited; they are sparse when the phosphorus is low and plentiful when it is high. Weeds and algae literally explode when there is too much phosphorus, like with artificial fertilizers. Goose droppings are loaded with phosphorus and nitrogen and often also with E-Coli and Giardia bacteria.
Historically, when there was little elemental phosphorus in the water column, the Red Cedar River ran clear. Now, with bottom sediments infused with goose droppings, the billowing muskgrass of late summer takes over and the water turns ugly green. Fishermen know there is no point in casting weed-free hook bait this past July to keep their rapalas and French spinners weed-free.
How much do Canada geese add to the green water and suffocating stands of billowing musk grass? Originating from the warmer winter waters and without the lush summer bluegrass lawns to laze around all day, geese rested on the river many hours a day, according to several university studies. And what do you do all day? In a study at Ohio State University, two graduate students were tasked with following a Canada Goose all day and counting the number of poops. At the end of a chaotic day, they then had to collect each pile of dung, weigh each one and analyze the phosphorus content in each pile. Amazingly, each goose left an average of 28 PPDs (Piles Per Day).
I can imagine that her classmates – who avoided the messy task – found humor in the task of their unfortunate classmates. But the humor faded when the senior professor extrapolated the student’s data to real lakes and rivers and revealed a shocking conclusion. Every goose that called a northern river home year-round dumped the nutrient equivalent of nearly a 100-pound sack of 2-4-2 manure into that river. Multiply that by the hundreds of geese on the Red Cedar River each winter, and the size of the pile of manure sacks becomes staggering.
Then the professor put the picture in human terms. Five hundred Canada geese resting on the same acre of water for six months of winter would poop more phosphorus in those watery mornings than a corn or soybean farmer could put on 400 acres of poor phosphorus farmland! Isn’t it surprising that the Red Cedar River downstream of the Rice Lake sewage treatment plant was choked with slimy, thread-like weeds at Christmas?
Geese have become a common problem along many northern rivers that have remained ice-free all winter. Cities on these river banks have tried several desperate ways to keep the herds away from their rivers. One city installed waterproof, high decibel speakers on masts in the water where geese gathered. Motion-sensitive switches activated the speakers to make loud noises like sirens, gunshots, or even hard rock when flocks of geese raised their wings and settled down. The net effect of keeping geese out was spectacularly effective. Everyone loved it – except for a few waterfront neighbors who ended the gold mine by successfully suing their town for disturbing the peace.
Golf courses are especially prone to the goosebumps that ruin the golfing experience for customers – and occasionally their expensive golf shoes too. So golf courses are at the forefront of commercial strategies for fighting goosebumps. Lasers, screaming sound machines, and border collies are just a few of the techniques tried. A country club oiled geese eggs in their nests to prevent hatching. But the next month the geese found better camouflaged nesting sites and laid a second clutch.
By most reports, border collies and retrievers patrolling the fairways are the most effective goose washes. Some courses rent the dogs. Others have their own dogs. Some even have their own breeding program for an endless supply of canine goose guards.
A friend who lives by a nearby lake coined the term “Sky Carp” for Canada geese on his lawn. He solved his stubborn goose problem with the help of his trained dual-purpose Labrador Retriever. The dog happily scatters sky carp from its lawn in summer and fetches its ducks from the waterfowl swamps in autumn.
We recently moved to a home on a large shallow bay on Rice Lake, which is a waterfowl haven. The house and the terrace are on a gentle hill, 300 meters from the shore. And the 100 meter long lawn became a bluegrass buffet for over 40 full-grown, pooping geese.
We tried everything with limited success. Then when I was poking around in a fireworks tent around July 4th, a light came on and I went out with a dozen long-range cylinder rockets. I sat on my terrace and aimed the bottle with a rocket at the largest goose family and lit the fuse. Zzzzt! BOOM! An exploding porthole in the middle of them! The lawn broke into a cacophony of screeching full-blown horns, flapping wings, and the scramble to the bank. My jaw dropped at the enormous effect of a small bottle rocket. It only took three live-fire sessions with exploding bottle rockets in the morning and in the evening for the geese to disappear – hopefully forever, I hoped.
Hmm, could bottle rockets be the ultimate low-tech answer to the Rice Lake goose problem? Not when the USDA Wildlife Division has something to say about it. They prohibit explosive devices to fog geese – even small ones that are shot out of a bottle. I just publicly announced that a federal crime against wildlife has been broken. I will now look over my shoulder for a man in a green uniform with multiple spots on his shirt and a Smokey The Bear hat.
And I suspect the geese will return to my lawn next spring and the Sky Carp War will start all over again. Sometimes I imagine that with the help of modern technology I can reverse natural processes to my advantage. But it’s only a passing illusion, because Mother Nature always strikes last.