By TODD McLEISH/ecoRI News contributor
MIDDLETOWN, R.I. — The Canada goose on Alexis McCabe’s lap looked anything but comfortable. The bird was upside down, with its feet and belly pointed skyward and its head between McCabe’s legs. But that was how McCabe, a first-time volunteer, had just been taught to hold the goose as she attached an aluminum band around the bird’s leg.
“It was a very bizarre experience,” admitted McCabe, a Warwick resident and a student at the Community College of Rhode Island. “I was very concerned about the location of its beak. And banding it was more difficult than I thought it was going to be, because the goose was a lot stronger than I expected.”
The goose and a dozen others had been herded by five kayakers — staff and volunteers with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) — into a pen adjacent to Green End Pond on July 2 as part of an annual effort to monitor Rhode Island’s resident Canada goose population.
Capturing the geese took longer than banding them, but even that wasn’t especially difficult, since the birds were in the middle of molting their flight feathers, a three-week process that begins in mid-June and makes them unable to fly.
Josh Beuth, the DEM biologist who oversees the banding of 600 to 800 resident geese each summer, said the state’s population of non-migratory geese was established in the late 1980s, when the migratory population was declining.
“The resident population has taken off better than anyone expected they would, and now we have a fairly liberal hunting season to keep them in check,” he said.
Beuth estimated that there are between 3,000 and 7,000 Canada geese that live in Rhode Island year-round, mostly near urban areas along Narragansett Bay, including Apponaug and Pawtuxet coves in Warwick, the Seekonk River in Providence and East Providence, and in Newport and Middletown, where “big houses have big lawns that go down to large bodies of water.”
Where the geese gather in areas of high density, the birds’ feces can raise bacterial levels and increase nitrogen in the water, which can lead to algae blooms and unhealthy water.
“The geese aren’t the primary source of pollution that leads to the closure of beaches, but they definitely contribute to the problem,” Beuth said.
The birds can also be a nuisance to homeowners, due to the large quantity of droppings they leave on lawns.
“The most common thing I hear when I show up at a site to band the birds is, ‘Are you here to take the geese away?’” Beuth said. “But we can’t relocate wildlife. As soon as they can fly again, they’ll go right back where they came from. And nobody else wants the problem anyway.”
He advises residents with nuisance geese to allow a natural vegetative buffer to grow between the water’s edge and the lawn, to provide a place for possible predators to hide and to make it difficult for the geese to get from the water to the lawn.
“If the geese have to get through a place where a coyote or a fox could be hiding, they might not go there,” he said.
To keep the population of resident geese from expanding too much, the state has extended goose hunting season and raised the bag limit for those hunting resident geese. Since it’s impossible to tell the difference between a migrant and resident goose, the fall hunting season begins in September, long before the migrant geese arrive in the region, when up to 15 geese may be harvested per hunter per day.
In Providence, Bristol, and Kent counties, and the northern part of Washington County, where most of the resident geese live during the winter months, the hunting season extends into February, with a bag limit of five birds per day.
“The areas where the resident geese are hunted have far fewer nuisance issues than in the urban areas where hunting isn’t allowed and where people feed them, which only adds to the problem,” Beuth said.
The population of migrant Canada geese has recovered from the declines it experienced in the 1980s and ’90s, though in recent years it has undergone another slight decline, leading state wildlife officials to shorten the hunting season this year from 70 days to 60 and reduce the daily bag limit from three to two.
“Migrant birds breed on the tundra, where they have a limited breeding season,” Beuth said. “If it’s a late ice-out year or there’s limited food available, it could lead to the birds being in poor condition or having poor reproduction. They have boom and bust years, and if you get several bust years in a row, the population can really take a hit.”
After the team of goose banders completed its work at Green End Pond, they moved on to Gardiner Pond, where they banded 25 Canada geese and captured six others that had been banded in previous years. By the end of the goose molting period, the team of biologists and volunteers banded a total of 704 resident Canada geese in Rhode Island and recaptured an additional 259 previously banded birds.
Rhode Island resident and author Todd McLeish runs a wildlife blog.