When Animals (and People) Attack

One of my favorite things to do on nice summer evenings is walk around the Lake Monona Bay in Madison.  It’s a nice loop, about four miles from my front door.  There are always interesting things to see from the people fishing or exercising, to the dogs sniffing around, to the dead fish lining the shore with only their eyeballs missing.  One of the most interesting and terrifying things, however, is interacting with the Canadian Geese!

One sure sign that spring has arrived is hearing the distinctive honking of geese overhead as they fly in their V-formations to nest by our many lakes.  Canadian Geese are monogamous for life (though “extramarital affairs” do occur) and tend to choose mates that are the similar in size, known as “assortative breeding” 1. When June comes, adult geese and their babies populate the lakeside and parks.  One interesting part of my walks is seeing the large groups of goose families, parents and babies, eating dinner together. Sounds cute, right? Think again. Scattered throughout these goose picnics are always three or so geese standing upright who are clearly acting as look-outs.  If a person even appears like they might be thinking about approaching, the look-outs (undoubtedly ganders guarding the nests) begin to hiss and charge!

Now to get to the terrifying part of my walks: One evening, as I made my way down the bike path, I noticed that the geese were all spread out right across the path, which I thought was a little rude.  I decided I would just walk right through the group to scare them out of my way.  I mean, I’m the human right? Top of the food chain? They should let me pass, no questions asked!  It turned out it was the other way around!  The geese were hissing and charging so aggressively that I decided it was worth going a few extra feet to walk around the group and avoid learning if they would actually back up their threats!

On a more serious note, goose populations in urban areas have been documented as problematic over the past few years. In some areas, such as Minneapolis, MN the goose population has been estimated at 27,000!2  The goose population in the fall of 2010 was estimated at over 1600 geese at 11 different locations from 12-2pm within the city of Madison alone! Since these birds have no natural predators in urban areas, the gosling survival rate is around 90%.3 Another interesting part of my walks is playing hopscotch to dodge aftermath of the family dinners decorating the grass and pavement. Goose excrement is the topic of many conversations in Madison because of its contamination beaches and parks. The excrement produces phosphorus, increases blue-green algae growth, and is the suspected culprit of an E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak that closed Madison beaches for several days in 2010.  Overpopulation of geese in urban areas leads to destruction of green areas, death of aquatic organisms, unsafe conditions in parks, and reportedly dangerous conditions near the airport.  Population control is necessary to allow both geese and humans to peacefully and happily coexist.

Population control techniques begin, of course, with encouraging the public to never feed the geese! Other methods include strategic placement of sprinklers, introduction of dogs in the area, and oiling of eggs to reduce reproduction.  As a last resort, and as was the case in July this year, some of the geese must be euthanized. In a quite controversial move, 350 geese were captured and euthanized this summer in Madison. The geese were taken to a local butcher to be made into goose burgers that will be donated to local food pantries.  In protest, local residents held a Memorial service for the fallen geese on the Capitol steps. Still, there are plenty of Canadian Geese around Madison to share the rest of the summer with. I dread hearing the distinctive honking overhead as the geese fly in their V-formations back south signaling to us that summer is over.

  1. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. All About Birds. http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/canada_goose/lifehistory. Accessed July 20, 2011.
  2. Mowbray, Thomas B., Craig R. Ely, James S. Sedinger and Robert E. Trost. (2002) Canada Goose (Branta canadensis), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online: http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/682
  3. Hefty, Russ. Geese Management Report for Madison Parks Division. 2011.
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Karen Reece

Karen served as a Senior Research Scientist in Nucleic Acid Technologies at Promega before switching careers. She has a BS in Biochemistry and MS and PhD in Physiology, all from University of Wisconsin-Madison. Karen was born and raised in Madison, WI.

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