Thursday, February 17, 2011

Save the Geese?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has devised plans to eradicate a half million Canada geese in 17 states along the Eastern seaboard, including 285,000 in New York State and some 20,000 in New York City, using as its primary justification the birds’ threat to airline safety.

Alas, the killings will do virtually nothing to reduce the vastly overhyped threat posed by geese to planes and their passengers. The Canada geese that famously brought U.S. Airways Flight 1549 down into the Hudson River were migratory birds. This coming summer, while the USDA is rounding up and gassing thousands of molting, flightless American geese, the migrants will be off in the Canadian tundra, peacefully raising their young.

But that doesn’t matter, because the government isn’t really worried about the birds in the air. The real targets of the extermination campaign are the birds on the ground. (For the facts and figures that led to this conclusion, see “Thoughts and Data,” below.)

The birds on the ground are full-time residents. They are the noisy, gregarious birds whose droppings soil golf courses, public lawns, and swimming areas. Local governments have spent years trying costly and comparatively humane methods to get rid of them—hiring border collies to deter the flocks, oiling eggs so they don’t hatch. Sadly, it’s not so easy to institute hunting season in a city park.

It seemed there was no possible efficient solution—until Flight 1549 crashed and the 155 people aboard miraculously did not lose their lives. The New York Post produced a graphic with geese in the crosshairs, and ran headlines screaming, “Pluck ‘em!” Geese, unwitting terrorists, were public enemy number one.

In the wake of the furor, the department of agriculture decided to pursue a goose-control method that had previously been a last resort: “lethal trapping during the molt.” Hundreds of adults and their young could be readily captured just after breeding season, when new feathers were growing in and the birds were unable to fly.

Politicians and bureaucrats could readily defend the extermination of thousands of birds (and one mute swan) on the grounds of “threat to aircraft and human safety,” as New York City’s contract with the USDA for goose removal in Brooklyn's Prospect Park put it. The secondary reasons for the killings were somewhat less compelling: “Turf grass/Lawn,” the city contract said. “Fecal droppings on grassy areas, potential decrease in recreational use.”

Geese, when paired with airplanes, were our new weapons of mass destruction—a brilliant pretext for embarking on a campaign of destruction that might not otherwise have won public support.

Even so, the USDA did its best to move quietly. When the agency came to Prospect Park last July, it did so in the form of an early morning raid.

Three-hundred and sixty-eight geese were rounded up, forced into turkey crates, and gassed to death. Ironically, two of those killed were Beaky and Target, injured birds that park rangers and goose lovers had recently spent days trying to save. Their carcasses, like all the others, were stuffed into plastic bags and tossed into a landfill.

A Department of Agriculture spokesperson said the geese had been “gently herded,” but to me the wild spray of feathers I came upon by the shore that day spoke of trauma, and it was shocking to behold a barren lake.

For many, the removal of the filthy, noisy geese was purely and simply a good thing. But for others, the operation touched a nerve. Some 75 people gathered for a vigil in the birds’ honor. Signs saying, “rest in peace, geese,” appeared in local stores. People gasped when they heard the news. They said it was “shocking” and “disgusting” and “awful.”

The indiscriminate roundup evoked the language of human atrocities. It was difficult to think about gas chambers without remembering the Holocaust. In its outraged reporting on what it referred to as a “massacre” and a “slaughter,” The Brooklyn Paper invoked the “killing fields.”

The birds brought up social issues, too. In the New York Times, an unnamed agriculture department official said the geese had been in a bad situation, because people had fed them doughnuts and other unhealthy food. He argued that the killings really were the best solution, because harassment would simply drive the birds to poorer communities that couldn’t afford goose mitigation.

There were those who mocked the grief, arguing that it would be nice if the mourners cared as much about people. (This sentiment is frequently expressed when there are outpourings of love for animals. Reviewing of a documentary about Fifth Avenue’s red-tailed hawk, for example, Times critic Jeanette Catsoulis observed, “Pale Male circles lazily, oblivious to the fact that his survival has become more critical than that of the homeless sprawled on the sidewalks beneath him.”)

As the days and weeks went by, my own initial, visceral sadness about the geese began to fade. I hated the idea of the killing, but the issues were complex, and I could imagine the officials’ frustration. The park was certainly cleaner. Was I simply being na├»ve? How could I be so upset about geese when I continued to eat meat?

On the other hand, what did it mean not to care? I’d seen that empty lake and those scattered feathers and cried. Left to its own devices, my heart had no question those murders were wrong. What did my slow tilt toward rationalization reveal about the way I responded to all the world’s injustices, both near and far?

In August, I went to a pro-goose rally on the steps of City Hall. About a hundred people came. The idea was to stop the killings from happening next year. I hid ambivalently behind a big “Give Geese a Chance” poster and struggled to hear the speakers, who had been denied permission to use a bullhorn.

The animal rights advocates were effective, but—much to my surprise—it was the politicians who moved me. Neither City Council Member Letitia James nor State Senator Eric Adams seemed at all ashamed to be lobbying on behalf of geese.

Indeed, they made the point that a system that showed such disregard for the lives of wild creatures was likely to be equally callous toward marginalized human members of society—the poorer citizens they both represented.

Tony Avella, former City Council member, stood up and declared, “The measure of a society can be how well its people treat its animals!” He paused. “Who said that? Gandhi!”

I left the demonstration feeling that the geese were important, for exactly the reasons the politicians said.

I was more upset than ever that the avian threat to air safety had been exploited in a way that would allow the agencies and citizenry to dodge most of their discomfort about killing.

To me, the war on geese offered unsettling parallels with the mentality that guided us into Iraq. If we bombed and sent troops in order to prevent large-scale annihilation, that was one thing. If we deliberately misled ourselves about WMDs in order to facilitate denial about a deeper truth—that we were decimating a country to preserve our oil, our cars, our factory farms, that was another. If we really look our lives, the casualties we inflict in support of our own convenience are appalling.

In the matter at hand, are we really willing to push geese into gas chambers for the sake of our picnic blankets?

Speaking for myself, the answer is no. And if we must kill: far better, it seems to me, to sanction a highly visible death rite and goose roast—then, at least, we would be forced to reckon with what we have done.

As an airplane traveler, however, I can see no reason to support the extermination of half a million resident Canada geese. In the words of another protest: Not in my name!


Thoughts and Data

The USDA’s decision to exploit “concerns over aviation hazards” in order to justify its assault on the Canada Geese is fundamentally disingenuous.

Birds and aircraft

In truth, birds in general represent a statistically tiny threat to aircraft.

In 2008, according to an Animal Welfare Institute analysis, the odds of a plane at a U.S. airport colliding with wildlife on takeoff or landing were approximately .013 percent.

From 1950 to 2009, the database reports, there were 1300 reported plane crashes with fatalities worldwide. The causes broke down by the following percentages (which I presume would hold true for plane crashes generally, even without fatalities):
• Pilot error (weather and mechanical related): 50 percent
• Other human error: 6
• Weather: 12
• Mechanical Error: 22
• Sabotage (including terrorism): 9
• Other: 1
Collisions between wildlife and aircraft fall into that 1 percent of “other” hazards to aircraft.

The Federal Aviation Agency's “wildlife strike” database includes everything from bats to deer to tortoises. Not surprisingly, most incidents involve birds—97.5 percent, the FAA reports.

From 1990 to 2008, the agency tracked more than 376 species in 87,416 collisions. Where do the Canada geese fit in? Here is the FAA’s summary of the four most commonly struck bird groups:
• Gulls: 19%
• Pigeons/doves: 15%
• Raptors: 13%
• Waterfowl (including Canada Geese): 8%
Of the waterfowl, Canada Geese represent just over a third of that 8%—but let’s round up to half, thereby assigning them the blame for something like 4% of the 1% of wildlife-related fatal crashes. In other words, four hundredths of a percent of fatal plane crashes.

Migratory versus Resident Geese

Even within the Canada Goose populations, there is another important question: that of resident versus migratory geese.

Forensic analysis of the birds that brought down U.S. Airways Flight 1549 showed that they were migratory geese.

A few facts about migrants: there are an estimated 2 million of them, and they breed in Northern Canada in the summer. They fly south starting in roughly September, and are gone by March.

In other words, they are not in the United States at the time the USDA has been conducting its round-ups and gassing operations.

By contrast, there are some 5 million resident geese. In the 1900s, wild geese were hunted nearly to extinction, and this development paved the way for the rise of resident geese. I’ve come upon three possible explanations of their origins, all of which have to do with human intervention in natural cycles:
• In the early 1900s, hunters clipped the wings of some migratory geese and used them as live decoys. When that practice was banned, the flightless birds were abandoned. Some managed to raise young, but couldn’t instruct them in the art of migration.

• When geese were placed on the federal endangered migratory species list in the 1950s, animal lovers collected and hatched eggs to replenish populations. Again, with no adults to instruct them, these birds never learned how to fly north.

• There are 7 or 11 subspecies of Canada goose, depending on how you count them. The largest, the giant Canada goose, was originally a denizen of northern prairies. It was thought to have been hunted to extinction in the 1930s. After a population of the giant geese was rediscovered by a waterfowl biologist in Minnesota in 1962, game managers bred the birds in captivity and reintroduced them to their former range—and well beyond. This is the only variety of Canada goose doesn't migrate, and never has.
Whatever the story, the common element is this: they don’t migrate. They have found plenty to graze and snack on in America’s parks and lawns and golf courses, which for some may be the next best thing to a prairie. Most stay within a few miles of where they were born; a small percentage may fly up to 100 or 200 miles in search of food.

These birds are certainly large enough to bring down a plane—while migrating geese frequently weigh around eight pounds, giant Canada geese may weigh as much as 22 pounds.

It’s not clear to me that there have been any definitive studies about how much danger these birds, as opposed to the migrants, may pose to planes. My own hunch is: far less.

Of the 1676 birds killed in the New York City area last year, a USDA report said, 55 had been banded. When the carcasses were examined, it turned out that 60 percent of the birds were in the exact same place when they were banded as when they died.

In Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, I’ve been told, resident geese tend to fly back and forth from nearby Greenwood Cemetery to the park, usually at an altitude of 500 feet, well below the incoming planes.

There’s one last bit of anecdotal evidence: there has been no goose roundup at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, which is located at the foot of JFK’s runways and is home to hundreds of Canada geese. The risk, apparently, isn’t pressing enough.

Take Action

In protests last year, animal rights groups urged people concerned about the geese to raise their voices before the Department of Agriculture finalized its roundup plans for 2011. (Last year, the Prospect Park contract was dated June 14.)

The following links are for groups that have worked to prevent further mass exterminations of geese:

The Humane Society of the United States:

In Defense of Animals:

New York City Audubon:

Prospect Park:

For the love of geese in Prospect Park (Facebook)

Fido in Prospect Park: