FEEDING THE GEESE
By Feng Sun Ph.D.
I am a bird lover and I began to feed Canada geese last year in Centennial Park (Howard County, Maryland) with commercial wild goose feed (such as cracked corn, wheat and Kaytee Wild Duck and Goose Food).
The park has a "Please do not feed the wildlife" sign. It is explained in the nearby bulletin that the wildlife's digestive systems are not designed for a human's food. I fed the geese with bird food only. The bulletin also states that if birds become dependent on being fed, they become less able to feed themselves and will multiply in an area that may not support their population. The bulletin says that such overcrowding causes destruction of habitat, pollution of the lake, and ultimately, disease and starvation.
However, according to research I’ve done and my experience, that is not the case. Canada goose populations are not established based on the availability of food supplied by people. Geese use more biologically relevant criteria in determining whether a region is suitable for them to carry out their daily or seasonal activities (Coalition to Prevent the Destruction of Canada Geese – www.canadageese.org ). My feeding experience exactly verifies that research result. Nowadays, there are usually only a few geese staying in Centennial Park although I fed hundreds of geese there during last winter and early spring.
The grass in the park has never been damaged by the geese even though, occasionally, there are flocks of migrating geese that feed on it. On land, Canada geese feed only on tender grass in the park. As soon as there is no abundant tender grass available, they stop feeding and leave the park until new, lush grass has grown again. It has been reported that a luxuriant growth of clover was found in a field on which the geese had fed before. It proved to the farmer's satisfaction that the alleged damage by the geese was imagined and not real. There was plenty of rain that particular spring which may have helped (Nova Scotia Museum). As a matter of fact, Canada geese are very aware of weather change, and their stop-off places are usually free of severe weather conditions. The arrival of the Canada geese in the northern regions of America has always been the signal that spring has come.
I have found that after geese feed on the wild bird food as a supplement to the food they find on their own, their feathers become shinier and more protective against bad weather, such as rain, snow and wind.
In addition to Canada geese, I feed various wild birds with pounds of seeds and grains daily in my balcony. These birds also become healthier after they feed on the bird food that I purchased for them. These wild birds bring to my family their graceful flight, beautiful songs, and touching moments, for example, of a male bird tenderly feeding his passionate female. Because of the birds' frequent stay in our nearby trees, there were just a limited number of cicadas during this year's cicada season. As a result, these trees suffered no damage from the cicada, and we were also free of the deafening sound from the bugs. I have also observed that the number of mosquitoes has been dramatically reduced since I began to feed the wild birds last summer. I realize now that healthy wild birds (including waterfowl) can play a big role in balancing our environment, improving people's quality of life, in addition to their loveliness.
Different from other birds, the majestic Canada geese have a high tolerance for people. Canada geese usually mate for life in the wild and are deeply devoted to one another. "Sagacity, wariness, strength and fidelity are characteristics of the Canada goose which, collectively, are possessed in the same degree by no other bird," wrote a naturalist many years ago. Geese are among the very few birds in which the family does not break up at the end of the breeding season; parents and their young raised during the summer have established strong family bonds and stay together almost a year. They migrate together in the fall in flocks containing many other family units. Each family stays together on the wintering grounds (Leslie Day).
The diet of this goose consists mainly of vegetation. It feeds on grass, rushes and water plants. Geese in the wild do eat seeds and grains, but to a lesser extent than plant matter. Watching and feeding wild ducks and geese adds to the enjoyment of many people's lives (Jim Mason). And my goose-feeding experience confirms that wild goose food is a welcomed and healthful addition to the natural diet of these birds.
After last winter's first snow, an injured goose limped in Centennial Park with the hind part of his body covered with blood. I scattered the grains to him and he enjoyed feeding on them very much. Three days later, the cut in his body healed and his feathers were free of the blood. He stayed in the park over the winter and he fed frequently on the grains that I poured to him. In the mean time, his injured leg made steady progress although it was a very cold winter. Before he flew away from the park last May, he could walk completely normally.
An orphaned gosling also arrived at the park during that time (goslings can be identified by their long peeping sound). He was lovely but a little timid initially. With the additional nutrition from the grains that I fed him, he successfully survived his first tough winter in Centennial Park (last winter was the coldest in 25 years). When he left the park last July, he already became a very friendly, strong and independent goose.
Early last spring, a pair of geese grazed on the bank of Centennial Lake. Unfortunately, the male goose had a crippled right leg and could only walk on his left leg. His mate stood by him loyally but the eyes of the male goose looked sad and watery. I scattered the grains to the injured goose and he immediately enjoyed the feeding. Two weeks later, miraculously, I found that he could use both his legs again although he still limped a little on the right leg. Days later, the recovered goose and his mate left the park, probably to fight for their old nesting place somewhere I do not know.
It is obvious that Canada geese enjoy wild bird feed as a supplement (not a substitute) for their own diet. And direct feeding from people has little or no effect on absolute regional populations of geese. A substantial portion of park-goers enjoy the thrill of interacting with wildlife by feeding waterfowl and consider it to be a legitimate park activity (Coalition to Prevent Destruction of Canada Geese). Some areas of New York State have passed strategic feeding laws giving municipalities the option of restricting the feeding of waterfowl to certain areas in parks where space permits. If public interaction with wildlife is maintained or increased, the public will naturally become more protective of it and less tolerant of wildlife killing. By pushing for feeding bans, government wildlife managers keep the public both physically and psychologically distanced from wildlife (Coalition to Prevent the Destruction of Canada Geese).
In August, I was fined $25 for feeding the geese in Centennial Park and the following week I was double-fined $50 for failing to cease feeding geese. I was notified that if I fed the geese in the park again, I would be immediately banned from the park, and if I failed to comply, I would be arrested. The officer even told me that Canada geese were not supposed to stay in Maryland because they are "Canada" geese. He insisted that commercial wild goose food harmed geese. I asked whether I could just feed the injured geese, and I was then told that I was not allowed to do so in the park.
If you would like to contact Dr. Feng and help him work on setting up strategic feeding areas, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
One of our members, Keith Norris, wrote a long letter about our responsibility to animals. Here is a quotable reason for not exploiting or ignoring animals: “We should value all life.”
The C.A.S.H. Courier 2004 Fall/Winter Issue
WHAT AND WHAT NOT TO FEED GEESE AND OTHER WATERFOWL:
One thing people feed geese is old moldy bread. Unfortunately, many geese will ingest the moldy bread and inhale the spores. These animals can become sick with a lung infection (fungus) that eventually causes death. Never feed waterfowl moldy bread or anything with mold. Please feed grains & corn more than bread, as bread has not much nutritional value and can fill the bird up as it expands with water. Most birds should be smart enough to balance their diet but we do have some animals in the wild that are "junk food addicts". Bread could play a part in angel wing but it can also be caused by many other factors including feeding duck/goose starter with 21% protein. High protein diets given to goslings over two weeks old can cause angel wing. Duck/goose/chicken scratch under 17% protein is a better diet. Angel wing can happen more commonly when the goslings are being rehabilitating by inexperienced people, where the geese are not offered a variety of food when confined in a cage.
RELATED ARTICLE: Should you feed geese in the winter? By Lisa Tretiak.