Chicago Has a Geese Problem, And It's All Your Fault

Chicago Has a Geese Problem, And It's All Your Fault
Photo by the author, Adam Morgan

Chicago is home to tens of thousands of Giant Canada geese, and for many people they’ve become a nuisance, a safety hazard, a public health concern, and an ongoing ethical debate. Some locals are so fed up, they're taking goose eggs from nests and shaking them by hand, rendering the embryos stillborn.

Is it ever morally defensible to kill baby geese? And why are there so many of them in Chicago?

The answer to the latter question may surprise you: we put them here on purpose.

In 1962, biologists actually thought that Branta canadensis maxima was extinct, until an Illinois ornithologist discovered a small flock in Minnesota. Over the next two decades, well-meaning conservationists reintroduced the iconic waterfowl throughout North America.

It was a bad decision. Even local biologist Bob Williamson, who helped restore the population, admits, “in hindsight it seems pretty obvious.”

But biologists didn't realize that everyday Chicagoans would have such a huge impact on the goose population.

The Human Problem
When you feed geese, you convince them that Chicago has a year-round supply of free, easily-accessible food. Thus the migratory birds famous for their 'flying V' formations have literally stopped migrating. Winter food shortages used to induce their yearly flight south, but free food handouts from naive citizens and tourists--who think they’re doing the geese a favor--are short-circuiting millions of years of evolutionary instinct and compelling the geese to stay put.

In actuality, you aren't doing the geese any favors when you feed them (or any other wildlife). Bread and popcorn are incredibly harmful to both individual animals and entire populations. Filled up on junk food, the birds won’t seek out the natural, protein-rich staples of their usual diet, leading to widespread malnutrition and wing deformity in goslings. Further, biologically unsustainable population spikes lead to the quick spread of Enteritis, Aspergillus, and Avian Botulism, diseases that have killed scores of birds across North America.

The Human Impact
Hand-feeding geese doesn't just hurt the birds. Those unwieldy populations are also potentially harmful to humans: goose feces contains E. coli, Salmonella, Campylobacter, and Cryptosporidium ("Crypto" for short). Exposure to contaminated droppings can also cause Swimmer’s Itch and hypersensitivity pneumonitis.

And in Chicago, goose poop is everywhere. Just take a walk in Lincoln Park this summer and you'll find the ground littered with millions upon millions of droppings. According to local park district officer Oscar Dahl, a goose "has one dropping every seven minutes. During the day, a goose drops one pound of dung. A flock of 100 geese will leave 100 pounds of goose droppings on a park every day."

But again, it's not the birds' fault. The vast increase in "defecation zone density" in urban areas like Chicago is due to hand-feeding, as the animals no longer need to cover wide areas to find food.

“You wonder...do I have the right to destroy these animals?”
There are so many Canada geese in Chicago that locals have gone to extreme measures to get rid of the birds. Hiring professional goose frighteners, sending aggressive dogs into their territory, and even the egg-shaking, embryo-destroying method mentioned above. Some desperate locals have even been arrested for physically attacking Canada geese.

But the long-term answer isn't egg-shaking or bird-punching. It's acting responsibly when we interact with our environment.

First of all, do not ever, under any circumstances, feed a Canada goose. And if you see someone doing it, politely inform them that despite their good intentions, they are actually harming the animals by malnutrition, increasing disease vectors, and preventing them from migrating.

Secondly, don't destroy their eggs. There are alternative methods of population control, including the reintroduction of natural predators, limiting flock growth, frightening geese away humanely, and making habitats less attractive to geese. New York's Department of Environmental Conservation has a great primer on the matter, and The Humane Society details several viable options.

As annoying as the geese (and their droppings) can be in great numbers, it is important to remember that they are not our enemies. In fact, in many ways, we are theirs.

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    "Hand-feeding geese doesn't just hurt the birds. Those unwieldy populations are also harmful to humans: duck feces contains E. coli, Salmonella, Campylobacter, and Cryptosporidium ("Crypto" for short). Exposure to contaminated droppings can also cause Swimmer’s Itch and hypersensitivity pneumonitis."

    WELL THIS IS PRETTY FUNNY......you don't even know the difference between geese and ducks. Ducks quack, geese honk. Ducks are smaller, geese are larger.

    And would you be able to look up out breaks of E. coli, Salmonella, Campylobacter, and Cryptosporidium on the Centre for Disease Control website? You will find no e coli outbreaks related to geese....they are related to livestock and food. The E coli outbreak in Kansas right now is ground meat.

    http://www.cdc.gov/ecoli/outbreaks.html

    "For example, a study of waterborne disease outbreaks from 1986 to 1998 conducted by the Centers for Disease Control demonstrated that in every case where the pathogen could be identified, it most likely originated in livestock.'

    http://www.sustainabletable.org/906/waste-management

    DOG POOP.....how many dogs are there in Chicago???

    Dog poop is a major contributor to stormwater pollution. Rain and melting snow flows across yards, dog parks, down trails, etc. on its way to creeks via our streets and storm drains. Dog poop contains bacteria and is high in nitrogen and phosphorus (nutrients that negatively affect our waters).

    http://www.keepitcleanpartnership.org/pollution-prevention/scoop-the-poop/

    When did it happen the general public is expected to believe idiots with no facts...just spouting off your opinion???

    Environment Canada's Canadian Wildlife Service

    Do goose droppings pose a danger to human health?

    EC-CWS worked with wildlife disease experts at the Canadian Cooperative Wildlife Health Centre to review the diseases carried by and affecting Canada Geese, and their implications for human and animal health. There is no direct evidence that goose droppings pose a danger to human health, and the review concluded that there is not enough data to conduct a meaningful risk assessment. They found large gaps in most of the important factors which are key to determining risk; most importantly, there is virtually no information on the frequency or probability with which pathogens are transmitted from geese to people or livestock. The report is available on CCWHC’s website.

    http://www.ec.gc.ca/mbc-com/default.asp?lang=En&n=98A918B1-1

    According to state and university public health experts including the New Jersey Department of Health, goose feces are fairly innocuous, posing little or no health risks to humans.

    Dr. Timothy Ford, professor at the Harvard School of Public Health and author of "Microbiological Safety of Drinking Water: United States and Global Perspective 1999," states: "Numbers of Cryptosporidium oocysts associated with Canada geese and waterfowl in general are likely to be minimal, unimportant relative to the potential for oocysts shed from other forms of wildlife and humans. IN MY MIND THERE IS NO POSSIBILITY THAT THE CANADA GOOSE WILL EVER BE A MAJOR ROUTE OF INFECTION. TO SUGGEST OTHERWISE IS UTTERLY LUDICROUS AND YOU CAN QUOTE ME

    And David S. Adam, Coordinator of Health Projects, Vector Control, Infectious and Zoonotic Disease Program for the State of New Jersey Department of Health, writes: "Giardia lamblia, as well as Cryptosporidium, is most commonly transmitted to humans by person-to-person fecal-oral contamination or by water fecally contaminated by humans or other mammals. Infection is usually asymptomatic with children infected more frequently than adults, often in the day-care setting. In summary, the role of Canada geese in the transmission of Cryptospordium or Giardia to humans is not well established, BUT APPEARS TO BE SMALL COMPARED WITH OTHER MODES OF TRANSMISSION.”

    Mr. Adams adds that CANADA GEESE HAVE BEEN WRONGLY BLAMED FOR BEACH CLOSINGS: "A number of beach closings including several in New Jersey have been attributed to this cause [high fecal coliform counts attributed to Canada geese]. However, research on this subject (including surveillance conducted in New Jersey) has usually found VERY LOW LEVELS OF PATHOGENIC BACTERIA, such as Salmonella sp., in the feces of waterfowl NOT EXPOSED TO HUMAN SEWAGE EFFLUENT.”

    Dr. Milton Friend, former director, Wildlife Research Center Water Fowl Disease U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is adamant: "On occasion we have been wading in that stuff [feces], dead birds up to our elbows... THERE IS NOT A SINGLE DOCUMENTED CASE OF ANY OF US COMING DOWN WITH ANY KIND OF A DISEASE PROBLEMS AS A RESULT OF THE CANADA GOOSE...WE DO NOT HAVE A HUMAN HEALTH SITUATION, NOT IN THE URBAN GOOSE, NOT IN THE WILD GOOSE, and not in the captive geese that we have also worked with. We do have a lot of diseases out there that can affect people. MOST OF THEM COME FROM DIFFERENT PLACES AND DO NOT COME FROM THE CANADA GOOSE AND I’LL LEAVE YOU WITH THAT.”

    Giardia sp., is common throughout the world. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that prevalence is higher in areas of poor sanitation and in institutions where children are not toilet-trained. The CDC lists "institutions and day-care centers as the principle mode of spread. " Principle reservoirs are listed as "humans, possibly beaver and domestic animals" -- geese aren't even mentioned.

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    And are you kidding corn is harmful to geese? Wild migrating geese eat corn dropped in the field on their migration. Corn is a grain and is natural normal goose food.

    There is seriously something wrong with americans...you are both stupid and whiny and feel such a sense of entitlement to every square inch of the planet. And your grooming products are one of the biggest threats to the Great Lakes. But you whine about geese. Your country will become unhabitable as you blissfully ignore the real problems and scapegoat innocent animals. Grow up.

    Grooming products/scrubs harming the Great Lakes
    Cosmetics manufacturers use these micro beads, or micro exfoliates, as abrasives in facial and body scrubs. They are too tiny for water treatment plants to filter, so they wash down the drain and into the Great Lakes.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/29/micro-plastics-great-lakes-personal-grooming-product_n_3505323.html?utm_hp_ref=green

    MEDIA RELEASE: Egg Addling Controls Goose Population

    “In a continued effort to control the Canada Goose population in the Okanagan Valley, the Okanagan Valley Goose Management Program is about to begin its annual egg addling program. Over the PAST SIX YEARS, this program has prevented the exponential increase of the non-migratory resident goose population that inhabits the valley all year long………Since the program began in 2007, approximately 7,700 EGGS HAVE BEEN PREVENTED FROM HATCHING THROUGH THIS MINIMALLY INVASIVE APPROACH…. ….In order for the program to succeed, new nests need to be identified. The PUBLIC IS ASKED TO REPORT lone geese, pairs of geese or nest locations on private or public land.”

    http://www.okanagangooseplan.com/?p=270

    In addition to ground surveys, aerial surveys were conducted in 2007 and 2011 to estimate the number of geese residing in the Okanagan Valley and to determine what proportion of the population were hatched that year. THE CANADA GOOSE POPULATION APPEARS TO HAVE STABILIZED THROUGHOUT THE VALLEY.

    http://www.okanagangooseplan.com/?cat=6

    GOOSE STRATEGY AND ACTION PLAN.

    http://www.okanagangooseplan.com/files/OVGMP_Strategy_Action%20Plan_2006.pdf

    The Okanagan Valley in BC is a major tourist and recreational area. The Okanagan Lake is 70 miles long. Other major industries include orchards and vineyards. The valley is as big as the state of NJ and they have a humane egg addling program which has successfully stabilized their permanent resident Canada goose population.

    Once known as Canada’s Mecca for “peaches and beaches,” the Okanagan Valley is today renowned not only for its orchards, but also its vineyards, golfing, skiing and an invigorating array of recreation and adventure activities for year-round outdoor fun. The Okanagan is an arid ecological marvel, stretching more than 100 km (62.5 miles) north to south. The valley averages 2,000 hours of sunshine every year, and less than 30 mm of precipitation falls on most parts annually. The summers are warm with low humidity, and the winters are generally mild.

    The terrain reaches from valley-bottom deserts to snow-dusted mountaintops, hoodoos to highlands, and sandy beaches to ski slopes. Lake Okanagan fills the belly of much of the valley, enticing with exceptional water sports and providing welcome relief from the sometimes blistering summer heat. No wonder Okanagan Country is Canada’s great summer playground!

    Wildlife is abundant and diverse, and includes grizzly bears, big horn sheep, cougars, rattlesnakes, muskrats and burrowing owls. Vaseux Lake Provincial Park is just one of many birding hotspots, home to sage thrashers, woodpeckers, wrens, swifts, chukar partridge and curlews, along with waterfowl species, including trumpeter swans, widgeons, wood ducks, blue-winged teal and .......CANADA GEESE.

    http://www.visitors-info.com/explore-okanagan-valley/articles/item/discover-the-okanagan-valley

  • Hi Marion, thanks for your comments, though I would advise against using all-caps and calling people "idiots with no facts" in the future.

    I can assure you that I know the difference between ducks and geese, and I thank you for pointing out my typo in that paragraph (I meant to say “goose feces”). The article I linked to lists the same substances as being evident in both duck and goose feces. And thanks as well for pointing out the “corn” typo, as it was meant to be “popcorn.” Two typos in one article is admittedly quite poor, especially when they affect the meaning of the piece. I apologize.

    Further, scientific studies on the effects of human exposure to goose feces is not as one-sided as you have presented them to be. I never claimed in the article that the feces was responsible for disease outbreaks, I merely recounted what the Center for Disease Control says on the matter.

    While there is certainly research arguing that the levels of contaminants in goose feces are too small to pose much danger, there is also plenty of research arguing the opposite, including from the CDC and the Center for Wildlife Damage Management, which says:

    “Research has shown that the excrement of geese contains a wide variety of pathogens capable of infecting humans. (Diseases transmitted from animals to humans are known as zoonotic diseases). Yet geese can also be a means of transmitting (vector) other diseases in ways unrelated to their defecation. As goose numbers continue to increase, concerns have been raised regarding the negative impact Canada geese may have on water quality and disease transmission (Fallacara et al. 2001).”

    The academic articles you quoted were new to me, so I thank you for adding them to the article’s comments, as they do present a strong argument against any human danger in goose feces, but I do think the issue is far from having reached a consensus.

    As for “blissfully ignor[ing] the real problems and scapegoat[ing] innocent animals,” if you read my article, I do not blame the geese. I blame humans. I merely acknowledge the fact that the goose population in Chicago has become biologically unsustainable, as many biologists have pointed out, and then ask Chicagoans not to 1) contribute to the problem by hand-feeding the animals or 2) take matters into their own hands by shaking eggs.

    You point out the effectiveness of egg addling programs, which is indeed a relatively humane solution to the overpopulation problem, but my article never condemned the practice when performed by professionals, it only questioned the ethics involved and asked non-professionals not to do it themselves.

    Further, I’ve read the articles about the microbeads from our cleaning products polluting Lake Michigan, and while I share your outrage over the matter, I don’t see it’s relevance to this article.

    Thanks again for your contributions, and I hope you’ll consider a less insulting method for presenting them in the future.

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    I think when people accuse geese of contaminating and polluting water it is VERY relevant to look at the MAJOR sources of water contamination. And they are not geese.

    Government of canada health hazards from geese:

    A variety of reports and assessments have been produced in regards to the management of goose populations throughout North America (USDA, 2004; Clark, 2003; US Fish and Wildlife, 2002; Gabig, 2000; Canada Goose Committee Atlantic Flyway Technical Section, 1999).

    A common theme in these documents is the reference to the health risks that geese pose to people and livestock.

    However, IT IS INTERESTING TO NOTE that even though the public discourse around the Canada goose as a nuisance places a strong emphasis on human health risks, the majority of complaints to the USDA APHIS Wildlife Service in West Virginia were found primarily to be related to damage to property (82%) or agriculture (15%) rather than human health and safety (3%) (USDA, 2004).

    In order for a person to develop a disease from a pathogenic organism in the feces of wild geese, the following steps must take place:

    1) an organism that is pathogenic to humans must be present in the feces of geese;

    2) the organism in the feces must survive in the environment after their deposition on the ground or in water;

    3) geese must deposit feces in an amount and manner where people might come into contact with it,

    4) a person must contact the contaminated feces, ingest a sufficient amount (infectious dose), become infected, and produce symptomatic illness (Feare et al, 1999).

    ........It is not unreasonable to assume that Canada or Cackling geese could potentially acquire EHEC, or other serotypes, FROM ON FARM SOURCES such as infected pastures, manure piles or slurry and then MECHANICALLY TRANSFER to other locals and contaminate aquatic environments used by people or
    livestock (Kudva et al, 1998). HOWEVER, this possible route of exposure and transfer, TO THE BEST OF OUR KNOWLEDGE has not been demonstrated. This again speaks to the importance of the unique risk settings that must be considered when assessing health risks such as goose feeding ecology, migration patterns, farming practices (i.e. fertilization of fields with manure), and the distribution and types of farms and their relationship with goose ecology.......Zhou et al (2004) found that only 10% of recovered Cryptosporidium sp. from goose feces were C. parvum and C. hominis, the species that are pathogenic to humans, and concluded that Canada geese might only serve as accidental carriers of cryptosporidia infectious to humans and probably play a minor role in the animal to human transmission cycle of the pathogen".
    http://www.ccwhc.ca/publications/Health_Hazards_from_Canada_Geese_February_2010.pdf

  • Thanks for the additional sources, Marion, and I won't argue with the evidence cited there. The differences in opinion are what amaze me, as many city, state and federal agencies warn of the health hazards related to over-accumulated goose feces:

    http://www.seattle.gov/parks/communitynotices/goosefaq.htm

    http://www.michigan.gov/dnr/0,4570,7-153-10370_12145_25065-59467--,00.html

    Apparently, it's also difficult to accurately measure the effect of goose feces on water quality, according to this study from 2009:

    "Unfortunately to date there are no methods that can specifically trace goose fecal pollution in environmental waters. The lack
    of detection methods is due in part to the limited information on waterfowl fecal microbial community composition, most of
    which has been obtained using culture-based methods."

    http://aem.asm.org/content/75/18/5919.full.pdf+html

    But again, the article above was not intended as an attack piece on geese, but merely to highlight the controversial opinions and coping strategies in Chicago, and to encourage citizens not to contribute to overpopulation.

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