Rikers island has held New York City's tough-guy prisoners for more than a century, but it is also populated by a much flightier group that stands accused of crimes against New Yorkers: Canada geese. Attracted by the vacant fields and easy access to water, thousands of geese have come to live on the fringes of the island, which is less than a mile from La Guardia Airport. But because the big birds have shown a propensity for colliding with jets there have been at least 68 Canada-goose strikes in New York State in the past decade on June 11, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a plan to remove up to 2,000 geese from city-owned properties like Rikers. That's "removal" in the Tony Soprano sense, with henchmen capturing and asphyxiating the birds. News that the city would be whacking such majestic creatures set off animal-rights advocates, but officials have held firm. "We have to balance animal rights with public safety," says Edward Skyler, New York City's deputy mayor for operations. "For us, it's not a contest."
Call it the geese war and its battlefield extends far beyond New York. With few predators and lots of lawns to graze on, the migratory birds have taken up full-time residence throughout much of the U.S., where the Canada-goose population has soared to more than 3.2 million. To some, that's a blessing the black-and-tan birds are beautiful, particularly in flight. But to others, Canada geese are noisy, smelly not to mention aggressive guests that have overstayed their welcome. Cities including Minneapolis and Reno, Nev., have implemented annual culling programs as neighbors in smaller towns fight over what to do about early-morning honking and maddening traffic fowl-ups. "The number of geese is growing, and the conflicts are getting worse," says Allen Gosser, a federal wildlife official in Albany, N.Y.
Canada geese shouldn't be present in such numbers and they nearly weren't. Thanks to overhunting and habitat loss, their numbers were dangerously low by the 1950s. But better environmental laws helped reverse the decline, and the geese learned to adapt to and eventually thrive in man-made environments. Ponds in public parks, people to feed them, nicely mowed yards and golf courses Canada geese found a home in America's expanding suburbs, even in such hot spots as Arizona, Florida and South Carolina.
That's great for bird lovers and bad for planes. In January, a flock of geese struck both engines of US Airways Flight 1549 out of La Guardia, forcing it to make an emergency landing in the Hudson River. Bird strikes are up nationwide, with pilots reporting more than 82,000 such collisions from 1980 to 2007. Not all those incidents involved Canada geese, but since these birds can grow to be as heavy as 14 lb., they present a particularly meaty threat to planes.
Canada geese are also prolific poopers, and with excretions adding up to as much as 1 lb. a day per bird, the health hazards are serious. The birds have been blamed for fecal contamination that has led to beach closings. "It's not just the geese, but what the geese leave behind," says John Moriarty, natural-resources specialist for Minnesota's Ramsey County parks.
Moriarty and fellow wildlife officials across the U.S. as well as in Canada, Britain and other countries have been trying to control the goose population for years. So how do you goose Canada geese? For starters, you get people to stop feeding them. Another method is to change the landscape; like good suburbanites, Canada geese prefer well-trimmed lawns and will shun long grass and shrubby areas that can hide predators. They can be scared away by noisemakers, fireworks, falcons and border collies. Pouring vegetable oil on goose eggs prevents them from hatching and also tricks their parents into not laying more eggs that season. "You need an integrated solution that draws on all these methods," says David Feld, national program director for the goose-control group GeesePeace.
Until recently, communities had been rounding up excess geese, then relocating them to less populated areas. But geese numbers have grown so large that no one will take more birds. So now usually in June, when geese are molting and can't fly birds in many areas are being captured and gassed with carbon dioxide. Also, at some airports, workers are being trained to use shotguns, in case birds get too close to active runways. "Shooting one or two birds prevents them from damaging the plane and it sends a message to the rest of the flock," says Gosser.
But animal lovers are livid over what they see as needless slaughter a debate repeated almost everywhere Canada geese are being culled. In New York City, it didn't help when Bloomberg commented that gassing geese amounted to "letting them go to sleep with nice dreams." Pro-goose activists picketed at Union Square as well as at Bloomberg's posh Manhattan home. "Are we going to extinguish every single bird in the sky?" asks Edita Birnkrant, New York director of Friends of Animals.
Certainly not. There are believed to be some 25,000 resident Canada geese in the New York City area, way more than the 2,000 that officials are sending to permanent dreamland. Meanwhile, DNA tests released in June showed that it was a flock of migratory geese from Nova Scotia that brought down Flight 1549 so targeting resident geese alone won't keep airplanes safe. Researchers are looking into more-effective defenses for airports, like improved radar systems.
Killing geese because they get in our way is a bit unfair. "You can argue that we created the environment they live in, so too bad if we don't like it," says Peter Capainolo, a senior scientific assistant at the American Museum of Natural History. Canada geese aren't the best neighbors, but that doesn't mean they deserve the death penalty.