The Lesser Snow Geese have arrived from their summer breeding grounds on Wrangel Island, an 80,000-hectare fragment of Siberia north of the Arctic Circle, where tens of thousands of these birds breed. In late summer, the vast majority of Wrangel Island snow geese split into two groups, both of which fly south along the Pacific Coast--the Pacific Flyway--to winter either in the Central Valley of California, or, it now appears if you live in Richmond, in your local schoolyard. Things have gone awry, or at least, have changed. But things are always changing, for reasons predictable and not, human-caused and otherwise.
Historically, the snow geese arrived in October and remained on the foreshores of Richmond and Delta, feeding on marsh plants such as bulrushes, which they ripped up with their strong bills to get at the starch-heavy roots. Then, at about the time we were hanging up our Christmas lights, they took wing southward, and ended up at the Skagit River Delta, a bit south of Bellingham. They would consume the plant life of that place, and then drop by again in Richmond on the way back north in late February or March.
Last winter a large number neglected to make that detour –or perhaps made a brief trip south, turned around and came back--and hung around in the Richmond-Delta vicinity, alarmingly eating (and befouling) their way across the grassy schoolyards of Lulu Island as far east as Garden City Road.
Lesser Snow Geese, Terra Nova neighbourhood park, Richmond, November 2007.
Why this change in behaviour occurred is not well understood. Perhaps it was related to the sheer number of birds. The population of Wrangel Island snow geese fluctuates. There were major dips in both the 1970s and 1980s, but over the past decade the numbers have steadily increased, due at least in part to increased survivorship of adults and young of the year during the summers in Siberia. The increase is significant: in1972, 20,000 geese overwintered on the foreshores of Richmond and Delta. In 2007, there were close to 90,000. This number may be too large for any one traditional feeding ground to sustain.
Another factor may be the trend, which began sometime in the 1970s, of the birds to move inland to forage. The Fraser Delta is certainly the place to do so. Potato and other farms leave much to glean from the fields, and since the 1990s farmers have been encouraged to plant winter cover crops, both as a means of adding nutrients to soil and as food for waterfowl. Also in Delta, on Westham Island, are the George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary and the associated Alaksen National Wildlife Area, which were established in the 1970s to encourage and preserve waterfowl – and they have been successful, hosting tens of thousands of snow geese per year.
Meanwhile, over the past half-century, and notably in Richmond, farmland close to the foreshore has given way to subdivisions. What fields remain are magnets for geese. Playground grass, with its succulent roots, is a goose delicacy.
Will we re-experience the damage of last year? We’ll have to wait and see. One thing we as a land-owning species can do is learn more about these birds, for it is lack of understanding that leads us to make decisions that in the short term tend merely to move problems around, and in the long term potentially make things worse.
Go to the dyke and watch them—or wait for them to come to you. But do make an effort to see them. Watch them rise with the crying of ten thousand voices. When you feel the power of that, for a few seconds at least, the soccer field won’t matter as much.
Some comment on the effects of snow geese and other waterfowl on the foreshores and farmlands of Richmond and Delta, BC is included in: http://www.alc.gov.bc.ca/application_status/37379/Agriculture-A_Commitment_to_the_Future-2007.pdf