They have their own Facebook page, where fans post photographs of them in their best light. They have loyal lawmakers who defend them against critics who say they are messy, noisy and menacing neighbors. Until recently, they had a lakefront home in one of New York’s most desirable areas.
But the Canada geese living in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park also had the bad luck to fall on the losing side of a battle sparked by the drama of Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger III. His safe landing of a US Airways jet in the Hudson River after geese flew into its engines last year made him America’s newest hero and turned the ubiquitous, black-eyed birds into every flier’s nightmare.
On a warm July morning along the shores of Prospect Park’s placid lake, federal wildlife officials rounded up hundreds of Canada geese and took them away to be gassed to death. Feathery tufts and plastic strips used to bind the birds were all that remained.
It was one of several mass goose killings nationwide this summer by the Department of Agriculture in response to local concerns about everything from airline safety to piles of dung. Timed to coincide with the annual molting season — when the birds shed old feathers and are unable to fly — the killings are part of an effort to cull Canada geese, which bordered on extinction in the early 1900s but now number in the millions in the United States.
“To a certain extent, the resurgence was a conservation success story, but perhaps more than anticipated,” said USDA spokeswoman Carol Bannerman, noting that in New York state alone, the population has increased twelve-fold in the last 30 years.
After Sullenberger guided Flight 1549 to a water landing Jan. 15, 2009, minutes after takeoff from LaGuardia Airport, city officials announced plans to cull geese in the name of aircraft safety.
But for every municipality that considers the large, honking birds the equivalent of flying rats capable of spreading disease and downing aircraft, there are people who view them as familiar neighbors who introduce urban children to wildlife and whose lazy, loafing presence softens a city’s edges. After the Prospect Park culling, distraught locals held a memorial service along the lake. By Sunday, a Facebook page dedicated to the geese had 494 friends.
Angry readers flooded newspapers with letters condemning what many called the “murder” or “execution” of the flock. Canadian media declared it a “deadly summer” for Canada geese south of the border. A Huffington Post columnist even compared the incident to the Swiss government’s decision not to extradite filmmaker Roman Polanski to the United States to face rape charges. “There’s something very wrong with society when a court sets a child rapist free while 400 law-abiding geese … are summarily executed,” Andy Ostroy wrote.
The controversy shows no sign of slowing down, either in New York or in states such as Oregon, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Wisconsin, where recent goose culls have sparked angry responses. The Humane Society of the United States last month called on New York to stop the culling and said that if the city had heeded its advice earlier to scare geese away with dogs or hamper hatchings by coating eggs in oil — a process called addling — birds could have been saved. Killing geese only clears space for new ones to move in, it says.
David Marcks, whose Geese Police company uses border collies to chase off clients’ troublesome goose populations, agreed. “Rounding them up and killing them? They’re just going to get replaced anyway,” said Marcks, who started Geese Police 23 years ago in New Jersey and now has offices in 11 states employing more than 40 dogs.
Like many critics of culling, he said it was the government’s fault the geese became a problem. As it sought to rebuild the dwindling population, it moved Canada geese to areas that offered ideal living conditions, creating the nonmigratory resident populations that now are targets for removal.
Bannerman said the government preferred nonlethal approaches. In the last fiscal year, she said, 14,041 Canada geese were killed nationwide by federal agents, but 444,059 were dispersed using harassment methods that included dogs, paintball guns and toy boats that chased them from ponds.
Critics, though, say officials have been too quick to kill birds and are taking the easy way out rather than spending time on egg-addling or educating people not to feed geese or do other things that acclimatize them to urban settings. They also say migratory birds, not resident flocks, were likely to blame for the US Airways crash.
“I think aviation safety is just an excuse” to cull, said Barbara Stagno of In Defense of Animals, which is planning a rally Aug. 12 at City Hall to press New York to stop culls.
Chio Flores, who launched the Facebook page for the Prospect Park geese, said she wanted the park to erect signs urging people not to feed the birds and to improve education about the birds and other wildlife so they didn’t end up becoming nuisances.
“It’s about much more than just the geese,” said Flores, who doesn’t consider herself an animal rights activist but was drawn into the issue after seeing how the goose deaths distressed regular park visitors.
“These are the wrong lessons for kids to learn,” she said of the gassing. “How do I solve a problem? I kill the geese.”
As long as geese are living just a few miles from New York’s major airports, though, it appears doubtful next summer’s molting season will pass without more culls, because dispersal methods aren’t advisable near low-flying aircraft.
“The last thing we want to do is try to make birds fly when a plane is landing or taking off,” Bannerman said.
One person whose opinion might help influence the debate’s outcome isn’t speaking. Through a spokeswoman at the agency representing the retired pilot-turned-author, Sullenberger declined to comment on the issue.