No country for millions of Canada geese

by Hiroaki Sato

NEW YORK — The State of New York plans to “gas” or otherwise kill 170,000 Canada geese to reduce the number from 250,000 to 85,000.

This news item, tucked away in The New York Times, struck me as yet another sign of human willfulness toward flora and fauna. After all, when it appeared, the BP oil spill off the coast of Louisiana had only recently been stopped, and images of oil-soaked pelicans and those cleaned and released, were still fresh. Efforts to save oil-damaged pelicans and others were made despite the warning that the survival rate of animals so “rescued” is a mere 1 percent. Why then plan mass killings of another species of bird?

Brown pelicans are common south of Virginia, I learned when my wife and I started spending summers on the Carolina shore three decades ago, but the first time I saw one remains as my first taste of “wilderness.” In the summer of 1965, a friend took me out on a fishing boat overnight off the coast of Redondo Beach, Calif., perhaps near Santa Catalina Island. Against the crags rising out of the choppy dark blue sea flew a solitary pelican. Right then it ceased to be the odd creature confined to zoos I had known.

I began to see Canada geese near Manhattan about 10 years ago. A friend and I had started taking an occasional ferry ride from midtown across the Hudson. Next to the New Jersey terminal, resting on a small patch of lawn or swimming along the shore, were two of these large birds, with yellowish juveniles almost the size of a regular duck. Being so close to them gave me a great sense of comfort.

More recently they showed up near my home. After years of work, the Hudson River Greenway neared completion. As that happened, the length of it from about West 10th Street to Gansevoort Street, with two abandoned piers turned into attractive waterborne parks, became a favorite place for me and my wife to take a walk.

There, a few years ago, we saw Canada geese. For all the annihilation of the shoreline with stone, steel and concrete, they must have done something right, I thought, although it may just be that enough time had elapsed for seaweed to grow on the below-waterline part of the esplanade. Geese and ducks come to peck away at the weeds.

Not that I had not seen Canada geese before; there were large congregations of them, in Union County, Illinois. My wife’s mother lived in Cape Girardeau, on the Mississippi, and we would visit her during Christmas. At times, my wife drove me across Old Man River to a wildlife refuge — the one on the road to Carbondale, Illinois, where her brother and his wife live. There, invariably, were a great many of those great birds. Sometimes a large flock would fly in, in the famed wedge formation, sinuously undulating.

For that matter, I saw from the window of my apartment, though only several times, a flock flying away high in the sky. My apartment is on the 12th floor and, for all the tall sprouts of buildings, faces the open air to the north. It must have been in the same space, in fact, that in January 2009 a flock of Canada geese were sucked into the engines of a jetliner that had just flown up from LaGuardia Airport, forcing it to splash down into the Hudson River.

The Times indeed said the plan for cutting down the Canada goose population by two-thirds, “according to a high-level official at the United States Department of Agriculture, was a result of five months of meetings between February and June 2009” — that is, after Canada geese downed the jetliner.

As it turns out, the Times report was somewhat misleading, said a followup in the Web site Your News Now (YNN), “Controlling the Canada geese population.” What the Times called “a doomsday plan for New York’s geese” has been “in place for a long time” and it has not been “all that successful.”

True, a 2006 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service document says the idea for a “strategy to reduce, manage and control resident Canada goose populations” was hatched in February 2000. Yes, they make a distinction between those birds that fly back and forth between the arctic and subarctic regions and temperate zones and those that stick around all year. The document, titled “resident Canada goose management,” posed the question: “What would happen to resident Canada goose populations without management?”

The answer: In the Atlantic Flyway, of which New York is a part, the number would increase to 1.25 million; in the Mississippi Flyway, to 1.5 million; and in the Pacific Flyway, to 400,000 — for a grand total of 3.15 million, by this year, 2010.

Can’t this vast land — whose human population is now at 310 million — accommodate 3.15 million Canada geese? Is one bird for every 100 human beings far too many? New York State is pretty large, too, with 141,000 square kilometers or 35 million acres — nearly twice the size of Hokkaido. Is a single Canadian goose for every 140 acres one too many?

The YNN article quoted Dr. Guy Baldassarre at the College of Environmental Science and Forestry, the State University of New York, as saying, “When you see geese, they’re eating or they’re defecating.” Isn’t that what we human beings do as well?

Baldassarre suggested one alternative to “mass euthanasia”: “You let the grass grow up a little bit and maybe get into growing native wildflowers or some other habitat type, you won’t see the geese there because they don’t eat those things.” But this is a country where the lawn and grass cutting remain supreme.

In her famous 1962 book, “Silent Spring,” Rachel Carson wrote: “The ‘control of nature’ is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man.”

Despite all the environmental talk since, nothing has changed.

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist.