A team from the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (DFW) went on the scientific version of a wild goose chase on Martha’s Vineyard Tuesday. The goal was to place leg bands on members of the Island’s large population of non-migratory Canada geese.
This time of the year the birds are molting and mostly flightless, so they they are easier to round up. By the end of the day, the DFW team, with assistance from the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) natural resources department, had placed leg bands on approximately 100 birds in several Island locations.
Bird banding can provide helpful information to researchers, including migration routes and nesting habits, DFW waterfowl project leader H. Heusmann told The Times during his visit. This information can be useful in determining habitat protection measures and management techniques.
Mr. Heusmann has been studying the animals for more than 40 years [A video interview with Mr. Heusmann is available at mvtimes.com]. His last trip to the Island to leg band Canada geese was in the early 1990s. He said he had come back to take “a fresh look.”
Wampanoag Tribe ranger Curtis Chandler scouted several locations before Mr. Heusmann and his team arrived. Stopping near Short Cove on Tisbury Great Pond, one of many possible locations where geese may be found, the group was disappointed. However, less than a mile north, the group “struck gold.”
A trail of feathers off Pond View Farm Road served as breadcrumbs leading to a flock of nearly 50 Canada geese in a backyard near Muddy Cove. The banding strategy is to corral the geese within a temporary pen, or goose weir, created with a net strung along metal stakes pounded into the ground.
As the DFW team approached the birds, the geese began honking and huddling together. The group began herding the geese like cattle into the short-term station, and within minutes they were ready to be banded.
After the geese were contained, one of the DFW team handed Mr. Heusmann a goose. He determined the goose’s age and gender. The goose was banded and its age, gender, and leg band number were recorded. The goose was then set free.
For this particular flock of geese, leg-banding 15 out of the 50 geese took less than 30 minutes. The geese were then released, and the net and stakes removed.
After leg banding more than a dozen geese, Mr. Heusmann looked as if he had been in a vicious pillow fight. He had feathers stuck to his arms and cuts from some of the more unwilling geese.
“They’re [Canada geese] not a Vineyard problem, or a New England problem, they’re a North American problem,” Mr. Heusman said.
The pesky birds start out as sweet goslings but grow up to become large birds, averaging 10 to 14 pounds.
“Six goslings are cute,” Mr. Heusmann said. “Sixty geese are not so cute.”
The birds can deposit between a half-pound to a pound and a half of droppings per day, according to Mr. Heusmann. They also tend to leave droppings in inconvenient places, golf courses for instance, or shellfish beds and beaches, which can result in closures. According to Mr. Heusmann, there are 600 to 800 Canada geese on the Island, and they can become a nuisance.
There are two different populations of Canada geese in Massachusetts, the migratory population and the resident population. Mr. Heusmann said some of the geese have taken a “truck stop approach” to the Island. On the way south during the winter, the geese may see Martha’s Vineyard as a nice place to stop because there is food. However, some never leave to migrate, resulting in an increasing resident population.
State wildlife biologists attribute their unwillingness to migrate from the Island to several reasons. It’s not because they can’t fly away, but the geese choose not to fly because the rest of the group won’t. Since no one flies, no one follows.
Also, the geese find a steady supply of food on the Island, and there are few predators for the large birds.
“The coyote is a predator, but there are no coyotes here,” Mr. Heusmann said.
In addition, there are no “natural controls” for the geese on the Island. “In the Arctic, they could experience a late spring and there may be no or very few young produced, for sometimes two or three years in a row,” Mr. Heusmann said. “But here [Martha's Vineyard], they hatch no matter what.” This results in a steady number of new geese being born here every year.
In 1995, the Fisheries and Wildlife Board established an early and a late Canada goose hunting season in September and February, with liberal bag limits, in an effort to reduce the resident goose population.
The current early and late season bag limit is seven, as opposed to only two in the regular goose hunting season. However, the Vineyard is left out of the late season effort because biologists have determined that migratory geese are also present.
Mr. Heusmann expects to leg band perhaps 900 Canada geese throughout Massachusetts. If someone finds or shoots a Canada goose with a band, report it to www.reportaband.gov.