Plentiful snow geese nuisance for some, good hunting for others
“These damn geese, they pretty hard to fool.”
Spoken in the cadenced patois of Cajun Louisiana, the ghost words hang like smoke on a frosty morning in late December.
Tommy Redbone, camouflaged head-to-toe in what he called his “Cajun tuxedo,” was putting down a couple thousand white rag decoys across a recently harvested rice field.
“I got to put all these out, otherwise the birds don’t pay no attention,” he explained, crossing and crisscrossing the stubble, occasionally splashing into an ankle-deep pool.
Far down along the coastal marshlands, thick ropes of white rose and fell, like waves crashing against a seawall.
These were waves, all right. Waves of snow geese.
“Oh, maybe a quarter, half-million,” estimated Redbone when a visitor asked. “It sure is a lot of damn birds.”
He peered through the lowland mist, trying to guess which way the wind might shift.
“We’ll sit here in the marsh grass and just wait,” he said. “You never know ‘bout snows, but you got to be ready.”
Snow geese. Even their name conjures the high Arctic, where the gregarious and wily birds nest and breed.
For many bird watchers, the fascination is in following the near-choreographed movement of these birds, what nature writer Barry Lopez called “the great synchronicity of their movements.”
Flocks of several thousand rise as one bird and return just the same.
“Unfurling skeins against the sky, banners of white,” wrote Lopez in his magnificent essay on snow geese, “Reflections on White Geese.”
The “uninterrupted inquiry of their high-pitched voices” in multitude are “a booming noise like rattling sheets of corrugated tin,” he wrote.
During a recent tour of the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge with sandhill crane specialist Paul Tebbel, he stopped his discussion of cranes to peer at a carpet of white geese, thousands more coming to join them, in a field of recently knocked-down corn.
“It’s like snow geese can’t make up their minds,” he said. “They’ll rush here and then there, ‘oops, better go back, no wait, let’s go here.’
“And they never do it quietly.”
You can spend days watching immense flocks of snow geese (earlier this fall at Bosque there were an estimated 11,000 light geese, which includes snow and Ross’s geese) and many watchers do.
“I never tire of seeing these geese,” said one of the refuge volunteers monitoring the popular Flight Deck observation point. “I find them fascinating.”
Were it true everywhere. Some people consider them a nuisance.
In the last 20 years, the birds’ population has exploded.
Originally marsh feeders, snow geese adapted to changes in American farming practices and in less than a decade learned to grub for food in the vast fields of corn and grains they had been bypassing.
As farming increases, snow geese tarry longer, saving their reserves for the spring migration flight.
Building these energy reservoirs enable the geese to enjoy greater success at nesting and breeding, which increases the population.
A survey in 1968 showed around 100,000 snow geese. Five years later, the number was estimated at more than 500,000.
Biologists today put the population between 3.9 million and more than 5 million.
According to a story earlier this year from The Associated Press, the overpopulation has created a “goose gridlockwon their nesting grounds and scientists are concerned about ecological damage on the delicate Arctic and sub-Arctic nesting habitats.
“At some point, the whole system will collapse. Basically, the habitat is out of control,” the story quoted Robert Rockwell, a population biologist with the Department of Ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
In places, the breeding grounds have been damaged to where it may take decades to recover, says the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Some geese have “lower-than-normal body size” with a “decrease in gosling survival due to habitat degradation,” the AP story says.
“The only way to reduce the impact is to reduce the size of the population,” Rockwell said.
But these mid-sized birds — a lesser snow goose male may weigh 6 pounds with a 3-foot wing span — are difficult to hunt because of the size of their flocks.
“Too damn many eyes watchin’ you,” lamented Redbone as flock after flock refused to land amid his decoys. “You gotta be perfectly camouflaged and sound just like a goose.”
Since the late 1990s, Canada and the United States amended their waterfowl hunting regulations to allow increased bag limits, extended hunting seasons and a spring hunting season.
“Yeah, we’re killing lots of birds now,” said Redbone later that December morning, hoisting a fat brace of wintering snow geese.
“But they keep on comin’. It’s like there ain’t no end in sight.”