A wildlife technician surveys a Canada Goose nest as part of the Okanagan Valley Goose Management Program.

Fair or fowl: Canada geese causing ruckus but is it really their fault?

Brought to the Okanagan by man, the invasive species lives on, congregating (and pooping) at area beaches

Canada Geese: A namesake of our country and a true piece of Canadiana or a nuisance water-fowl scattering feces on beaches causing water quality issues.

However you view the abundance of Canada Geese in and around the Central Okanagan, one thing is for certain, it’s not their fault that they are here in the Okanagan setting up nests on balconies or roof-tops and doing their business on area beaches.

No, Canada Geese are in the Okanagan thanks to the work of humans.

By definition they are an invasive species, not native to the Okanagan Valley or anywhere else in Southern B.C. They were brought here in the 1960’s by well-meaning government wildlife agencies as well as conservation groups.

“It dates back to the 1930’s when the conservation of water-fowl was a big concern in Canada,” said Kate Hagmeier, a biologist who wrote her masters degree on migratory birds including Canada Geese and whose company is contracted to help control the Okanagan goose population.

“By the 1960’s there was a well-intended program run by some agencies and not-for-profits to introduce geese into the west so we would have more aesthetic (water-fowl) as well as some hunting opportunities.”

It may have been well-intended at the time, but the consequences of introducing an alien species to the Okanagan are far reaching. Well over $100,000 is spent each year trying to control Canada Geese, who have no natural predator in the Okanagan and have become habituated to humans because people love to feed wildlife, even though it’s the worst thing for them.

Read about the impact Canada geese (and others) can have on water quality in Okanagan lakes here

As well, even though Canada Geese are a migratory bird that should be leaving its home for the winter months, flying to warmer climates, the Canada Geese that live in the Okanagan don’t even know where it is they are supposed to migrate to because they were never taught by their parents.

So instead they stay in the Okanagan year round.

“There are 11 different sub-species of Canada Geese in North America and four or five of the species were brought to the region,” explained Hagmeier. “It was actually a terrible thing to do. The sub-species have bred together to form original stocks. That’s why they can be different sizes because in the east geese are huge and in the north they are small. There were no adults brought in to teach them their natural migratory habits and they are out of their native area so there is no natural features to trigger migration.”

In a word, it’s a mess. And a lot of that mess is on area beaches where goose droppings are cleaned up on daily basis using hundreds of staff hours, only to have to come back the very next day and do it all over again.

But despite some changes in what parts of the Okanagan Canada Geese are congregating, making it seem as if the population is growing, the opposite is in fact true. The Canada Goose population has flat-lined in the Okanagan as some adults are dying off while every jurisdiction in the Okanagan works together to try and limit the population growth.

“If goose management was simple, no one would be having this conversation,” said Hagmeier. “This is an issue throughout the Okanagan Valley. If it was simple, it would have been dealt with already.”

•••

Back in the day, Oyama resident Frank Latchford worked at Vancouver International Airport where among his duties was wildlife control. He and his colleagues would use live ammunition and pyrotechnics to create a hunting atmosphere on the airfield, keeping it clear for planes to land. Another technique was using green lasers to move animals and water-fowl.

Now retired in Oyama, Latchford still uses the green laser to move geese around. As part of his nightly ritual, he shines the laser over Kaloya Park point, moving a huge gaggle of geese out onto the water and south.

But everyday the geese are back.

“It’s frustrating because it’s so hot and the water levels are going down and you cannot go into that park. It stinks to high heaven. Our grandkids and the neighbor kids are getting spots and have had pink eye from swimming there.”

Latchford says the number of geese in Kaloya Park is substantially more than in past years. He has counted 225 of them this year and says there were maybe 70 or 80 in past years.

Kaloya is a regional park and the Central Okanagan Regional District (RDCO) has four full-time staff members assigned to maintenance of the north zone parks, including all four RDCO parks in Lake Country: Reiswig, Kaloya, Kopje and Okanagan Centre Safe Harbour.

Staff spend between two to four hours every day cleaning up goose feces in the parks using mechanical sweepers, mowers, back pack blowers and even a broom and shovel. They also use pyrotechnic launchers and other methods to chase geese away.

“This is effective while staff are present on site but the positive effect is often negated by park visitors who feed the geese within the park while staff are not present. The threat of the scare tactics becomes secondary to the reward of a food source,” said Bruce Smith, communications officer for RDCO. “We continue to endeavor to clean up the mess left behind from the geese but recognize the fact that it is an unrealistic expectation to have a facility free of goose feces as long as the geese are present and there is an ample food source. Our goal is to have as minimal impact as possible from goose droppings on our park visitors experience, hence the effort we put into it daily.”

One of the reasons there are more Canada Geese at Kaloya Park this year as opposed to previous years is the park is perfect habitat for Canada Geese. Land surrounded by water allows geese great nesting habitat and the ability to get into the water quickly, should a natural predator come ambling by. The problem is, being an alien species habituated to eating human food means they don’t really have natural predators and feel safe living among us.

As well the geese that congregate at Kaloya also nest on private property in the area.

“Right now geese are in the molting stage where they are growing new flight feathers so they go to an area that is sheltered,” said Hagmeier. “Kaloya is perfect. It’s a peninsula surrounded by water. They look for areas that are like an island so they can get into the water quickly if they have to.”

•••

There are 2,500 Canada Geese in the Okanagan Valley, ranging all the way from Osoyoos through to Vernon. While the don’t migrate because they don’t know how, they do move around in the region. They love Vaseaux Lake in the south. And they love Kaloya Park in Lake Country. They have been found to make nests on balconies in Kelowna or on roof-tops. They are not scared of man and instead view us as a food source.

“They have adapted to us very well,” said Hagmeier.

As the head of the Okanagan Regional Goose Management committee, Hagmeier and her company are in charge of what has become the best tool to manage the Canada Goose population: The egg addling program.

Each year when the Canada Geese lay their eggs, Hagmeier and her colleagues head out to the nests and physically get their hands on the eggs, either shaking them or coating them in oil. It stops the transfer of oxygen and the process of hatching a new Canada Goose. The eggs are left in the nests, the adult goose returns but when nothing hatches, the adult moves onto the next phase of its year, which is the molting stage, where it sheds old feathers and grows new.

“Egg addling is a really strong tool,” said Hagmeier, noting it is the most humane way of stopping young from hatching and doesn’t effect the adult goose. However the program isn’t 100 per cent effective, again largely due to man. Some Canada Geese nest on private property and some land-owners will not allow Hagmeier and her colleagues onto their property for egg addling.

“We don’t get all the nests,” she said. “So we see eight to 10 per cent young every year. But in a population that was not being addled, that (birth rate) would be 50 per cent.”

So as many eggs are addled and the number of young Canada Geese born is small, adult Canada Geese are starting to die off. The species can live for more than 20 years but Hagmeier said they are starting to see missing pairs of adults in their counts. In a perfect world, as the years go by, the Canada Geese population should start to decline.

“I don’t think the goal is to not have them here at all,” said Hagmeier. “I think the goal is to have them at a level where there is no conflict. It’s not a measure of numbers it’s a measure of where are we comfortable.”

Additional information on the Goose Management program can be found at www.okanagan-gooseplan.com