Goose Strike! Humans and the Sky


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.

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.

Perhaps it goes without saying that the Canada Goose slaughter policy, even on its own terms, is unnecessary. Bird-aviation experts such as the Bird Strike Committee (composed of representatives from the Federal Aviation Administration, the USDA, the military, airports, and airlines) list as one of their top ten myths the idea that "If birds are a problem at an airport, killing them all would eliminate the problem." They note that such slaughter is not only illegal, but that one bird species can quickly be replaced by another -- and that there are far more effective, humane, and ecological options for reducing dangerous interactions.

Some of these solutions are so simple, they require merely an absence of effort. Probably the single most effective way of avoiding bird-plane collisions is keeping grass next to runways high so that birds can't see potential predators and stay away. The Air Force, for instance, mandates that grass near its runways be maintained between 7-14 inches for this very reason. But commercial airports around the country continue to clip their grass short, partly for perceived aesthetic values and partly because they mistakenly believe that short grass has to be cut less (the opposite is true). To the extent that bird strikes are a danger, bad turf management at airports and surrounding areas is usually the culprit.

"Sometimes, it's just a matter of educating people how to manage the grass," Russ DeFusco, a consultant on bird strike issues and a member of the Bird Strike committee, told me.

Indeed, grass is the major cause beyond all others of the "goose problem." There are now hundreds of thousands of geese living year-round in Mid-Atlantic states like Virginia and New York -- more than their historical populations (though far less than the tens of millions strong human population). Although there probably were always a handful of resident Canada geese outside of Canada, their numbers have exploded. The reason is almost entirely due to the expansion of suburban sprawl -- and the lawns that accompany it.

Canada Geese evolved to live at least part of the year on the short grass tundra of Northern Canada. By chopping down America's native forests and tall grass prairies, and replacing them with lawns, we've created a goose pleasure palace: full of nourishing Kentucky bluegrass and with clear sight lines to avoid predators. They also love corn, and, Lord knows, we grow a lot of it. Far from invasive species, Canada geese are the natural denizens of the invasive ecosystem that is the American lawn.

"Geese used to be a wonderful sign of fall, but now they're seen as pests," I was told by Dr. Tom Bancroft, chief bird scientist at the National Audubon Society.

Indeed, we've made the Canada goose's American dream even more attainable by drastically reducing populations of predators like wolves and mountain lions (though spreading coyotes will kill Canada geese). There are other ways to reduce goose-aircraft conflicts. Simply switching to grass species other than Kentucky bluegrass can help do the trick.

Shifting routes away from known wildlife migration paths, using bird calls and other audio measures to keep wildlife away from runways, or in extreme cases, capture and release of problem birds that just won't leave can all significantly reduce the problem. Aircraft controllers also have access to technology that can keep close track of nearby flocks of birds and plan take-offs and landings accordingly.

Of course, we should understand even these techniques in the context of the overall aircraft safety picture: wildlife strikes account for just a tiny percentage of total fatal crashes. We'd be way better off investing limited resources in training to reduce pilot error, the culprit in the majority of airplane crashes (other worthy areas of investment include mechanical improvement and tightened security).

There is also another way to address the goose population boom -- to expand permitted, sustainable hunting of Canada geese. According to Dr. Bancroft, hunting limits and wildlife refuges established since the early 1960s have allowed Canada geese and many other once overhunted game birds to make an extraordinary rebound. Wildlife scientists have a good understanding of how to set bag limits to maintain healthy populations. From an ecological perspective, in-season responsible hunting of geese is probably one of the best ways to get calories -- providing food without destruction of any native vegetation, and disproving the need for the kinds of disturbing absolutist claims represented by the anti-goose campaign.

And Canada geese are apparently delicious, according to famed hunter/chef Hank Shaw, who shares recipes for everything from Canada goose mortadella to roast goose with pear in an article in The Atlantic on how to transform the Canada goose from overpopulated aircraft hazard into delicious appetizer in three easy steps.

Canada goose season is underway in many states, so this is the perfect time. This kind of sustainable, regulated hunt -- and, more importantly, a change in the way we think about lawns -- would keep planes and birds alike out of harm's way and leave the sky wild and free.