More Canada geese wintering in urban, suburban Illinois

Nara Schoenberg Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — Weighing up to 20 pounds, they rule local waters with loud honks and dramatic splash landings.

They rise in distinctive V formations that have become synonymous with autumn.

And yes, they leave their droppings – a pound or more per day per adult bird – on golf courses, athletic fields, parks and schoolyards.

Love them or hate them, Canada geese play a big role in Illinois, where their resident (largely non-migratory) population has grown from an estimated 70,000 birds in 1997 to about 120,000 today, and migratory birds settle in for long winter stays.

“We’ve definitely seen a really big increase in the number of (migratory) geese wintering in Chicago, which was confusing at first because if you had the choice of hanging out in Louisiana or Tennessee during the winter, why would you do that ? stay in Chicago?” said Mike Ward, professor of natural resources and environmental sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Ward believes the geese benefit from conserving the energy they would need for a traditional migration and avoiding the hunters they face in rural areas.

If that sounds like a complex strategy for one goose, Ward says, consider that migratory Canada geese can handle the challenges of urban bike lanes, fast-moving traffic, and hungry polar bears — sometimes all in the same week.

“Like most birds, they are capable of making decisions, learning, and acting on the information they gather,” Ward said.

There are thousands more migratory Canada geese wintering in Chicago than there were in the 1990s, Ward said, and he suspects other urban areas in the state have also seen increases.

While the overall population of Illinois’ resident Canada geese has remained relatively stable at about 100,000 to 140,000 over the past 15 years, population shifts could cause numbers to increase in some urban and suburban areas, according to Ben Williams, urban waterfowl project manager for Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

The suburbs in particular are an ideal place for resident geese, he said.

“People like their golf courses, they like these homeowner communities with ponds and water features. And they create a perfect habitat for Canada geese,” Williams said.

Another bonus: humans crowd out natural predators, making it fairly safe.

The resident geese could act as beacons for migratory geese looking down from the sky and seeing a place where members of their kind have found food and safety, Williams said.

Some have speculated that climate change is playing a role in keeping migratory geese in the northern states, but Ward doesn’t think it’s a big factor. While winters are slightly warmer on average, they can still get cold enough to endanger a goose. And extreme weather events related to climate change can actually create problems for geese wintering in Illinois, Ward said.

On the plus side, the geese that need open water may wait for brief freezes or migrate to rivers or Lake Michigan that don’t always freeze completely. They’ve been known to use cooling ponds on power generators, which stay warmer in the winter, Williams said.

In a way, the Canada goose is a remarkable conservation success story. According to the technical guide Managing Canada Geese in Urban Environments, the birds were nearly driven from most of North America by the early 1900s by commercial hunting, egg harvesting, and the loss of wetlands.

The presumed extinct giant Canada goose — once abundant in Illinois — was rediscovered in Minnesota in 1963 by Harold Hanson, a research biologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey.

Captive breeding programs began, and states where Canada geese once roamed wanted to release some into the wild.

Canada goose numbers grew steadily at first, then accelerated in the early 1990s, according to Paul Curtis, a professor of wildlife science and management at Cornell University.

“We kind of created the problem,” Curtis said.


A Canada goose preens its feathers near Montrose Beach in Chicago on November 10, 2022.

E. Jason Wambsgans, Chicago Tribune

In the early 2000s, news of human-goose conflict began to surface in the Chicago area, with complaints of geese flying in water fountains, stopping cars, and eating vegetables at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Some of these problems have since resolved themselves. In 2009, the Naperville Park District installed life-size plywood dog cutouts to discourage geese from congregating on its golf courses.

Park District golf director Kevin Carlson said the cutouts eventually stopped working, but natural predators — including coyotes — took in the gap and ate eggs before they could hatch.

For those who cannot rely on coyotes, there are a number of goose control companies in the Chicago area, including Rescue Me Goose Chasing in Orland Park, which uses Australian Shepherds to herd geese from overpopulated properties.

Owner Tom Guilfoyle said his clients have included a church and a new retirement community with a pond. In the spring he gets calls from companies with attractive properties and dozens of geese, some with nests to protect.

Nesting geese will hiss at people or fly at their heads, attacks that can be unsettling, especially to those unfamiliar with this behavior.

Williams, who takes calls about Canada geese for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, said he’s encountered similar situations.

“(Canada geese) get used to some of these suburban areas and they decide that right in front of the post office or in front of the restaurant is the right spot for a nest – and then they decide to defend that nest aggressively. It’s pretty common,” he said.

Williams said sometimes just harassing the geese by repeatedly chasing them off your land can persuade them to settle elsewhere. A change in landscaping can also help; Geese prefer mowed lawns and easy access to water.

Those with more persistent problems can get a free government permit that allows the owner to prevent goose eggs from hatching by coating them in corn oil or shaking them. Williams said Illinois residents with geese issues can reach him at 847-608-3177 or [email protected]

Human-goose relations appear to have settled down in the Chicago-area since the early 2000s, but Ward noted that the Canada goose is still “the most hated bird species in Illinois.”

Now that geese are flocking to urban and suburban areas in Champaign, Peoria and Springfield, those regions are facing more conflict.

“Champaign is kind of like Chicago was 20 years ago when it came to figuring out how to interact with and live with some of these populations,” Williams said.

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