Novelist John Green recently released a collection of essays titled “The Anthropocene Reviewed.” He uses the five-star rating system to comment on our geological era, taking on topics from air conditioning to Indianapolis to plague. I highly recommend it; except for his rating of the Canada Goose. He only gives the Canada Goose two stars.
He is not alone in his assessment. It was a flock of Canada Geese that caused the US Airways plane to land on the Hudson River in 2009, after which various agencies culled thousands of geese from the area. They are so numerous in some parks that it’s impossible not to step in their droppings. And they can be aggressive towards humans, particularly during nesting season.
(The “Nuisance Goose Brochure” from the Ohio Division of Wildlife has a section titled “Human-Goose Conflict.” It advises never to turn your back on an attacking goose. Instead, maintain eye contact and back slowly away, remembering all the while that most goose-related injuries are caused by people tripping over things because they are walking backwards. Balloons with eyes drawn on them are also apparently good things to have on hand when one is likely to encounter an angry goose. Or anytime, really.)
Still, they are the quintessential goose. Their flying V formations, their familiar “honk” and their distinctive black head and neck with white “chinstrap” all make them easy to identify. If you’ve been around a pond, lake or marsh in the U.S., you are likely to have seen them. A lot of them.
I often hear them called Canadian Geese. This is wrong. We say California Condor not Californian and Arizona Woodpecker, not Arizonian. The same applies to the goose. Like these other birds, its name is most likely associated with its original breeding range. Besides, the geese are not Canadians, but citizens of the world—as they have been spotted on every continent except Antarctica.
There are 11 subspecies of Canada Goose (plus the Cackling Goose, which looks nearly identical but is now considered a separate species), but the most common is the giant Canada Goose. Once thought to have been hunted to extinction, its numbers have exploded over the past few decades.
Once they were rediscovered in the 1960s, Canada Geese were the subject of massive breeding and protection programs. In South Dakota, where a few flocks remained, efforts to reintroduce and manage the species began in 1967. Today, there are over 137,000 and, according to the most recent Breeding Bird Atlas, they are nesting in almost every county. (Hyde County is the exception, although there is a high probability they are breeding there as well.)
Perhaps because they are so numerous and seem happy enough living in close proximity, Canada Geese seem to have captured our imaginations. One forgotten tale of the Cold War era has Connecticut and Canada nearly setting off a major international incident over a goose both claimed as their own. But that’s a story for next time.