Wild Goose Chase: Volunteers Help Officials Keep Tabs On Vermont's Canada Geese

Jul 17, 2017

Have you ever caught a wild goose? Well, every year Vermont Fish and Wildlife invites the public to do just that, helping them corral wild Canada geese in order to record and band the birds.

The line of Canada geese flying south for winter and returning in their chevron formation each spring is an iconic image of the changing seasons – but it's not an entirely accurate one.

Vermont has a population of about 30,000 resident geese that stay far closer to home. They're born in Vermont and spend most of the year here, only heading as far south as Massachusetts or Pennsylvania in the colder months.

In the summertime, while they're raising a gaggle of goslings, the geese can't fly. The goslings are just starting to get their flight feathers, and the adults go through a complete molt, replacing their primary feathers with new ones.

While the new feathers come in, the whole family is stuck on land or in the water. This is the time when Vermont's Fish and Wildlife Department round up the geese and band them. 

Keeping tabs on the resident population helps department biologists determine population size and health and also informs their decisions about management practices, like hunting seasons.

But rounding up a flock of geese is not easy, even if they can't fly, so members of the public are invited to come along.

 

Molting geese lose their primary flight feathers and the new feathers come in looking like this. The waxy keratin sheath looks blue because it has blood flowing through it to nourish the feather that's developing inside it. Eventually the preening bird will remove the sheath and the new primary feather will appear. By August the bird should be able to fly again.
Credit Jane Lindholm / VPR

On July 5, about 30 volunteers and 10 department officials (and one reporter) gather at Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area in Addison to get instructions from wildlife biologists Amy Alfieri and David Sausville.

"We have a couple different ponds where we're going to try and capture the geese," Alfieri says. "And we basically surround them strategically and move them into a pen."

The first flock is in a fallow cornfield not far away. Volunteers split up and fan out behind the geese, driving them into the nearby pond and back out the other side.

Alfieri and Sausville shout commands to their groups of volunteers: "Run!" "Stay back!" "More to the left!"

Vermont Fish and Wildlife biologist Amy Alfieri watches a gaggle of geese, as volunteers drive them to the edge of the pond.
Credit Jane Lindholm / VPR

The geese are remarkably compliant and surprisingly quiet until volunteers start to close in on them with several metal panels, forming a makeshift pen. They squawk and flap their flightless wings as they are pushed closer and closer together.

"For them at this point, it's about survival," Alfieri explains. "They see us as predators ... It probably doesn't feel like a day at the spa, for sure. But this is really the most efficient way for us to track the population and make sure that we're doing things right. We try to be quick, especially when we're handling the birds."

The panels are tied together into two pens. Seventeen-year-old Ethan Sausville, David Sausville's son, stands inside, ready to hand out the geese, one by one, so they can be banded.

"You'll be handed a bird," Alfieri tells the volunteers. "You bring it to the bander. Stay with your bird."

About half of the volunteers are children or teenagers, and several of them have been coming back for years for this event. Fourteen-year old Tucker Kennett is there with his twin brother, Calvin, his younger brother Wyatt and their friend Jillian.

"I guess it's just kind of fun holding a wild animal," Tucker Kennett says, "but it's kind of scary at some times too, because ... it's a wild animal."

Most of the geese in this flock are juveniles, born earlier this summer. They're starting to get their adult plumage, but some still have a little bit of downy fuzz on their heads and slightly grey cheek patches. By the end of August they'll be flying.
Credit Jane Lindholm / VPR

David Sausville offers tips for how to hold the geese: "Grab the feet; that way they can't scratch you. And just kind of support them underneath," while holding their wings at the shoulder blades.

One by one, the geese are handed over. Sitting on overturned buckets, the biologists do a quick assessment of the individual. They separate the downy feathers on the bird's underbelly to determine the sex, check whether it's an adult or a juvenile and then attach a metal band with pliers to the bird's lower leg. The band is imprinted with a series of numbers.

"I always say it's like your Social Security number. Nobody gets the same number," Sausville quips.

The band is clamped tightly enough to ensure it won't get caught on anything they might find in the water or on a branch, but loosely enough so a juvenile can grow into it.

When all the geese have been banded and sexed, they're set free. The final tally: 11 adults and 45 goslings. Eight of the adults had been banded in previous years.

And 30 volunteers have had a chance to feel the powerful wings and feet of a Canada goose in their arms and to observe the work of the state's wildlife officials.

Each goose is banded with a numbered metal ring. "I always say it's like your Social Security number. Nobody gets the same number," says wildlife biologist David Sausville.
Credit Jane Lindholm / VPR

Sausville says inviting volunteers is about more than getting free labor.

"It allows people to get a connection with the wildlife that's in the state, build up that appreciation for the birds and wildlife that are out there," Sausville says. "And it gives us a chance to talk to them about the value of the habitat that's out in the state and how to protect that or manage it for future populations of birds and generations of people."

And for the biologists, it's a key way to measure the health of the resident goose population.

The current number of 15,000 breeding pairs is a little higher than the department's ideal. And there are a million breeding pairs in the Atlantic flyway – one of four flyways, or travel corridors, that stretch from north to south across the United States. That's high, too.

Sausville says too many geese can lead to significant crop damage and also increase negative interactions with humans. So keeping tabs on these geese will help the department as it determines the parameters for future hunting seasons.

When the geese are set free, they stream out of the opening in their pen, waddling quickly back to the water, and glide quickly out of sight of the admiring humans.

Disclosure: Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife is an underwriter of VPR.

Broadcast on Vermont Edition on Monday, July 17, 2017 during the noon hour; rebroadcast during the 7 p.m. hour.