My office window looks out onto a fenced, grassy field. Lately, as I watch flocks of Canada geese make morning visits there, I’ve imagined that it’s a goose park—like a dog park, but for geese to come out and play, graze and socialize. The fence, of course, is a humorous and completely human contraption; it means almost nothing to a goose. Many consider Canada geese a nuisance because of the impact their numbers have on our shared greenspaces. However, we are creating landscapes that are perfect for geese, and then we complain about them. With attention to understanding what attracts them, we can work with their natural tendencies rather than fighting against them.
Monoculture Landscapes Attract Monoculture Wildlife
The grassy field next to my office was intended for one type of animal—horses. Trees are lined up with regular spacing along the outer perimeter of the fence, but only a very short grass grows within the fence. This setting is much like the typical city park, and even the term “park-like landscaping” refers to well-manicured, expansive grassy areas with the occasional large shade tree. Hailing from the northern prairies and treeless Arctic tundra, Canada geese feel right at home on golf courses, athletic fields, farms and suburban residential neighborhoods, especially if a body of water is nearby and easily accessible.
In our trimmed and controlled lawns, geese have few competitors for their favorite food—grasses—and not many predators. With a clear line of sight to keep track of their young, they choose to nest there with their mates. They mate for life, and many return to the same wintering ground year after year, for as long as three decades. Honking V-formations of geese flocks are popularly recognized as harbingers of the changing seasons: The birds fly south in the fall and north in the spring. However, Canada geese have become so accustomed to living in manicured landscapes that some flocks no longer move with the seasons. Two subspecies have adapted to feeding on the common grasses found in urban areas year-round, and they just stay in these areas instead of moving on.
Diverse Landscapes Attract Diverse Wildlife
Canada geese are in every state of the U.S. and every province of Canada. Their abundance can put stress on their habitats as well as the humans who maintain them. The remedy for too many Canada geese on your property is to get more imaginative with your landscaping. Aim to plant beds in vertical layers and irregular clumps. Or better yet, let native plants grow up in natural swaths. Three-foot-wide walking paths for humans that weave through tall vegetation will discourage geese from taking up residence. They like to see wide open spaces, not curves that hide what’s beyond the bend. Don’t mow all the way to the edge of a pond. Rather, create walkways through generously-vegetated buffers to access the water.
Planting a variety of tall grasses, wildflowers and colorful fruiting shrubs will encourage other wildlife to visit. Competition is a healthy thing. While large predators bring many benefits to creating a balanced, healthy ecosystem, it doesn’t take coyotes and wolves to keep the goose population in check. Raccoons, foxes and opossums are examples of smaller mammals that eat eggs and small chicks. Snakes are another beneficial predator that would enjoy the hiding spaces that a multi-layered landscape provides.
Imagining this horse pasture by my office becoming a wilder space over time might ruffle feathers where I live (in the horse capital, Kentucky). But making it more difficult for geese to survive in urban and suburban landscapes could ultimately push them to become smarter birds. A gradual pressure on wild geese might be a humane way to reduce their population over time and bring it into balance with songbirds, reptiles and amphibians that depend on diverse habitats and have suffered population declines.