The Hudson River slices a border between New York and New Jersey. On the Manhattan side is the concrete grid with her wind lashed avenues and imposing skyscrapers. On the opposite bank, is northern New Jersey and a sprawl of industrial estates. There are some pockets of green, though where nature fights back. Many of these green spaces flank the Hudson. In one such pocket, I have enjoyed watching a rather unappreciated bird that continues to thrive in urban spaces – the Canada goose.
In New York and New Jersey Canada geese seem to appear wherever there is water. I watched numbers rise and fall over the winter as some groups stopped over on their migration from the north, but a resident population remains year round. The excesses of a city’s human dwellers provides an abundance of food for those that can tolerate it, even in the harshest months of the year. When times are really tough, there are always city children wanting to be touched by an all too rare connection with nature by feeding a hungry goose.
In their second year, male and female Canada geese form bonds for life and are both active parents. My local geese selected nest sites on the ground, on or around the dilapidated piers of Hoboken, New Jersey, where they hatched their young surrounded by people, litter, ferries and feral cats.
In this seemingly hostile environment, I watched families come together to form gangs of goslings which grew rapidly on a diet of grass and the seeds and bread that people fed them with. The yellow bundles of fluff delighted the young children in the parks and gardens.
The adult geese are large, growing to over 102 cm (40 inches) with a wingspan of up to 1.7 meters (5.6 ft.) and weighing in at up to a colossal 9 kg (19.8 lbs.); the bird can live for over 20 years.
There are still populations of Canada geese that maintain their traditional migrations from the far north of the American continent down to the southern states and Central America. These birds are capable of covering 2,400 kilometers (1,500 miles) in 24 hours flying in that well known ‘V’ formation that we see high over our towns and countryside. They have been reported to fly at extraordinary altitudes of up to 9 km (29,000 ft.)
Many people view these beautiful birds as pest due to their presence on, and fouling of parks, pavements and golf courses where a gaggle of 50 geese can produce up to 2.5 tons of excrement a year. Perhaps you are reading this and muttering a curse under your breath at the mess that these thoughtless birds left on your lawn or at the golf course at the weekend. If so, keep in mind that following as little as 1/4 inch (6.5 mm) of rain, New York City pumps sewage overflow into the Hudson River to the tune of 27 billion gallons of combined sewage and storm water every year. It could be argued that the goose is getting the raw deal.
In flight, they present a collision hazard around airports. This was most graphically illustrated in New York in 2009 when a passenger jet collided with a flock of Canada geese shortly after take-off. The collision caused both engines to fail and a heroic pilot to crash-land US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River, avoiding serious injuries to the 155 people on board. This led to controversial culls taking place around New York airports. Once again the long suffering geese did not come out of the event as fortunate as the passengers of Flight 1549!
Their great abundance has made them popular with hunters, with over 2.5 million being taken every year. Still the birds endure, and I can’t help but admire them for their ability to survive, thrive and grow in the harshest of human environments.
Long live the Canada goose! I hope to see this survivor in our parks and urban water courses for many years to come.
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