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.