Goose Strike! Humans and the Sky

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I'll never forget the day the geese turned the sky black. It was a bright autumn afternoon in my favorite boyhood wilderness -- Rockefeller Preserve in New York's Hudson Valley. From a distance, I heard a few honks and flapping wings -- the not uncommon signal for the approach of some Canada geese. And with no more warning than that, the woods around me suddenly transformed from dazzling orange to a dusky purple. I looked up and saw a flock unlike any other I had ever seen: instead of the usual dozens, there were hundreds, flying not in their characteristic "V" pattern, but fitting in wherever they could find a bit of airspace in between the wingtips of their fellows. Wave after wave kept vaulting over the hills and began to descend in a rush of feather, belly, and beak.

It was a moment that evoked the mostly bygone era of North America's great wildlife migrations. I might never experience thousands of buffalo thundering across the prairie or miles-long flocks of passenger pigeons winging their way across the vast Eastern forest, but these Canada geese gave me the opportunity to see a vast mass of megafauna on an enormous and seemingly timeless journey. On that day, the honking of the geese sounded as eternal an element of the landscape as the snorting of the bison or the cooing of the passenger pigeon had to the early settlers.

Of course, as the tragic histories of those two species show, numbers are not necessarily a defense against human hostility or stupidity. A single flock of passenger pigeons that flew over Kentucky in 1808 was estimated to contain two billion members. But even these swarms couldn't survive the often unthinking destructiveness of Westward expansion. Farmers cleared the vast chestnut forests that had nourished the pigeon; hunters and egg snatchers decimated their numbers further; and trains suddenly provided those hunters with access to markets where the pigeons were turned into feed for human and pig alike.

As stupid and preventable as the extinction of the pigeon seems, however, it was done without real forethought or malice. Americans wanted the passenger pigeons to continue living as a resource -- we just didn't have the forethought to let them.

I worry that we may not have learned our lesson -- and that even the goose and other winged creatures that have been at the center of heretofore successful conservation efforts for more than a century may find themselves in jeopardy.

This January represents the two year anniversary of the emergence of a deeper existential threat to geese and many other far less numerous birds -- one that represents a new and deeply troubling force in man's relationship to the creatures of the sky.

The geese are being targeted not for their meat or their feathers or some tangible utilitarian use. Rather, they are being killed merely because they inhabit the sky

It was two years ago today that US Airways Flight 1549, famously piloted by Captain Chelsey Sullenberger, hit a flock of migrating Canada geese and was forced to make its dramatic water landing on the Hudson River before an audience of thousands watching from Manhattan's skyscrapers.

Soon, New York and then the country, divided itself into pro and anti-geese camps. Mayor Mike Bloomberg announced a death-to-geese policy for any bird unfortunate to find itself within five miles of one of New York's airports. Wildlife agents waited until goose breeding season when the animals don't take flight in order to protect their young and used kayaks to herd them ashore into pens, whence they were driven off to a goose gas chamber and buried. The Obama administration, eager not to be outflanked on goose killing, unleashed the Agriculture Department's brutal "Wildlife Services" division on the geese and is planning to destroy more than 150,000 New York State geese out of a total population of a quarter million -- and then move onto other states.

There's something new and deeply awful about this campaign that distinguishes it from previous wildlife extermination efforts. The geese are being targeted not for their meat or their feathers or some tangible utilitarian use. Rather, they are being killed merely because they inhabit the sky -- into which our species has relatively recently decided to start flinging, on 90 second intervals, 700 thousand pound metal tubes with multiple jet engines attached to their wings through the air at average speeds of five hundred miles per hour.

This policy of proposed goose extermination represents a human claim of total control over the sky that has few roots in history. Of course, for millennia, we've more or less claimed most of the Earth's surface as our exclusive property: Any living thing (including other humans) whose existence hindered or even didn't promote the growing of crops or the raising of livestock would generally be exterminated or, at best, relegated to dwindling reserves for indigenous people and Nature.

But the sea and the sky have been mostly immune from these types of absolutist claims. We might stupidly hunt a whale or a fish to the brink of extinction, but it was for something they provided: food, feathers, or sport. Never was sea creature or bird officially targeted merely for the crime of living in the air or sea.

This new doctrine -- this new extension of the human sphere -- is deeply dangerous and will have consequences that reverberate around the globe. Despite the depredations of the 19th Century, the United States has long had a major and mostly positive influence on global wildlife conservation. The 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which mostly barred killing of migratory birds, has since been extended to many other countries and even other fauna types. In Democratic and Republican administrations alike, America is generally a strong supporter of strong protections for endangered marine species like the bluefin tuna. But now, even as bird populations around the world decline due to lost habitat and overhunting, we could be at the vanguard of a new era in airborne wildlife slaughter.

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Glenn Hurowitz is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy, and a regular contributor to the online environmental magazine Grist.

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