Sunday, October 19, 2008

Lesser Snow Geese, and lots of them.

Anyone who in the past few weeks has spent any time near the western dyke of Lulu Island already knows: they’re ba-ack.

Arrival: the "Big Goose" formation.

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.

A damaged soccer field is an expensive, but very local effect. It is also a symptom of a much larger phenomenon, a dynamic system that is tri-national and bi-continental. Studies by Russian, Canadian and US researchers are ongoing to obtain improved estimates of population sizes, survivorship rates, the numbers of birds presently being harvested by hunters at various stages throughout migration, and the impacts on staging and –and this is an official term-- loafing sites. Lesser Snow Geese are very important components of numerous far-flung local ecologies, and how best to manage them is not clear.
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.

Above Westham Island, Delta, BC, October 19, 2008.

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:


PSYL said...

I definitely enjoyed my trip to the dyke whenever coming across these guys. Noisy but magnificent animals.

And by your "short term decisions", I am assuming you meant the City's interesting idea of hiring dogs and handlers to chase these poor animals around from one field to the next?

Thanks for the short introduction and more references on these visitors.

Hugh said...

I wasn't referring to the dog plan in particular. That came out in the paper(s) after I wrote this. But the dog approach doesn't seem much of a solution, does it?

Lwood said...

Mr. Griffin: This is a complex issue, but I support more consideration and action by Richmond council, as I have indicated to the editor of the Richmond News recently:

"Your October 17th issue reported that the City of Richmond has approved a $40,000 action plan to “combat the invasion of snow geese”.

Included in the plan, it is reported there will be taxpayers dollars spent to haze and scare the geese with dogs and with kites.

The main motivator for this “plan” appears to be the nuisance created by too much goose dung!

Later in the same paper, there is a wonderful article by Hugh Griffith encouraging Richmond’s citizen’s to take in the spectacle of the birds migrating to our neighborhood.

I know that I frequently enjoy the amazing flocks as they settle for rest and nutrients.

I was most interested to learn that their natural habitat in Russia no longer supports them for some reason. This is an issue I will want to learn more about.

Thank you Mr. Griffith, for bringing some sanity to our council’s reaction to this natural event.

Shame on the City of Richmond for working to chase off these wonderful creatures! I am appalled!

In a world where most natural species are diminishing, surely we should be protecting and encouraging the snow geese to live in our community.

Isn’t there a more sustainable way to live in harmony with these creatures? The City solution appears penny wise but pound foolish.

Invest some capital and operating dollars in fixing up the damaged playing fields by using artificial turf and work to encourage habitat for these wonderful creatures.

Perhaps YVR would donate to the longer term solution, being the responsible environmental steward that the airport authority is!


zhakee said...

Interesting post. Living on the Pacific Flyway in the middle of California, migrating birds are a pleasant part of rural living, in my opinion. I don't think I'd want a huge flock of geese dropping in for a bite to eat in my garden, but they are more than welcome a few miles away, or down along the river.

tully monster said...

Southern Illinois gets snow geese by the millions along the Mississippi in the wintertime, and only recently (a few years ago) our state DNR started issuing hunting permits for them. It's seen as another attempt at population control--apparently, napalming the tundra in order to save it was also proposed but went over like a lead balloon.

Hugh said...


The central continental population is also having environmental impacts, most seriously in their breeding range where they are depleting/degrading arctic marshlands. Apparently it is linked to increased food supply (grain crops) in the wintering grounds in the Midwest, leading to increased winter survival.

tully monster said...


Don't get me wrong--I'm aware of the problem (though I hadn't seen this article yet) and have no problem with hunting permits. (Friends of mine go out there every year and bag their limits in snow geese.) I don't see responsible hunting as cruel and inhumane, but it sounds like it's just not making a dent--despite the fact that most of the riverbank in western Illinois is given over to hunting clubs and it's a huge industry there.

But I am curious: would napalming the tundra nesting sites really have been a viable solution to the problem, from your point of view?

Hugh said...


I agree with you regarding hunting. Was napalming a serious suggestion? Real napalm? I could understand why that didn't go over well. A little too indiscriminate and environmentally unfriendly. I know in certain parks here, where Canada Geese are (or have been) considered a problem, a proportion of the eggs are (or have been) "addled" (=shaken)to kill the embryos without inspiring the adults to lay another clutch.

I don't have a suggestion about what to do in the arctic. Up there in the Geese' Fortress of Solitude there are not enough egg-addlers.

Whatever "cull" method, how many? I doubt anyone knows, or can know. Plug numbers into population growth models and hope for the best?