Mysteries of the City Bird: Wing Deformities and…Midnight Rites?

The goslings in Morningside Park are growing up. When they were babies, all four looked very much the same.

But as their adult feathers began to grow, it became increasingly clear that two of the goslings suffer from a deformity of the wing feathers.

The wing feathers jut out at an uncomfortable-looking angle, making it impossible for the goslings to fold their wings against their bodies, as other geese can. As the weeks have passed, the handicap has become increasingly evident.

The useless wings are not yet a disadvantage, as none of the goslings is old enough to fly and all are protected by vigilant  parents.  “Hyper-vigilant” might more accurately describe the father.

But it’s pretty clear these geese will never fly.

Over the past weeks, I’ve discussed the goslings with several Morningside Park regulars who have watched generations of goslings grow up in the pond.  All confirm that a few goslings in each brood suffer from the same wing deformity.  But when it comes to theories about the cause of the deformity, theories diverge.

Some observers blame dietary deficiencies, maintaining that too much white bread, fed by park visitors, prevents the feathers from forming properly. One man insists that the feathers break when the birds make their way through dense reeds that have now been cut down. Others, including Tom, a herpetologist/zoologist with the Bronx Botanical Garden, believe it is a congenital deformity.


Tom grew up near the park, used to work in it, and knows more about its flora and fauna than anyone I’ve talked to.  I asked Tom what would happen to the deformed goslings. In past years, he said, the Urban Park Rangers have taken them to a sanctuary upstate where they can live out their days waddling about and swimming in safety.

In the wild, geese with such a handicap would not survive. Here in the park, they are doing fine.

Which is more than than can be said for … someone.

Piles of white downy feathers

Deep piles of white down lined the stone staircase at the south end of the pond.  For a brief moment, as I climbed the steps, I thought perhaps a hawk or falcon had, for some strange reason, chosen to pluck their victim on the stairs rather than in the safety of a high spot.

But last I heard, the local raptors don’t cook.

Burn circle with feathers

What went on here?  Sacrificial ritual?  Santeria?

There’s plenty of weekend barbecuing in Morningside, but it takes place in grills along the eastern edge and doesn’t leave behind piles of fresh feathers.

I welcome your thoughts as to what happened here. If you have any ideas, please leave a comment.

Esau ponders feathers

Explore posts in the same categories: 2010, Birds, In the City, June, Morningside Park, NYC Parks, Wildlife/Natural History

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14 Comments on “Mysteries of the City Bird: Wing Deformities and…Midnight Rites?”

  1. […] this summer, we worried about the sudden disappearance of the little Canada goose family that nested on Morningside’s island.  In July, new geese began congregating, and by the end […]

  2. […] our goose family, which is easily distinguishable by the four goslings, two with a deformity called angel wing. She has […]

  3. Tracy Seeley Says:

    These city/nature walks are lovely–a good reminder that “nature” isn’t out there somewhere beyond the city limits.

  4. Charlotte Says:

    I’d go with Santeria, given the fire and the weird markings. Or a pillow fight?

    • Yes, I’m guessing Santeria as well. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time for this in Morningside.

      • BTW got an email today saying that there were no geese or ducks in the Morningside Pond. Went down there myself and didn’t see any. What’s up with that?

        • The ducks disappeared quite a while ago, and I believe they may have headed over to the Meer. According to other Park observers, it’s happened before that the mother duck has led her babies on a walking pilgrimage (they were many weeks from being able to fly) to one of the Central Park ponds. A pretty frightening journey – 110th Street! Frederick Douglass Circle! -, but one they’ve reportedly made successfully in the past. I don’t know what the story is with the geese. They were nowhere to be seen on my last two visits to the park. It’s possible that they too have headed over to Central Park now that the babies are bigger, but I just don’t know. I think I’ll try to contact the Park Rangers & see if they know what’s happened to our waterfowl. Please keep me posted if you hear anything.

  5. Donna Says:

    The Angel Wing information in very useful. I haven’t seen the deformity in the ducks and geese here in Philly. I can’t imagine it not being in the birds here. I probably need to pay more attention.

    As far as the burnt feathers, it is a bit too weird to think about.

  6. Wren Says:

    Interesting about the wings, and sad about the feathers. I suppose someone could have been desperately hungry, but I don’t like to think about that for many reasons.

  7. Could be the parents but I wouldn’t rule out a diet high in calories. Found this on Wikipedia about the condition which is known as Angel Wing. ” In Sweden, ten different park populations of Canada geese produced angel wing. The following year one flock was not fed any artificial feed and there were no angel wing goslings produced” …full article

    • Fascinating. Thank you so much for the information and the link to the article on “angel wing.” Having just done a quick scan of online articles, it seems that the condition is not uncommon in park geese, but that the jury is still out on the causes. I’ve turned up very little serious research. Most of the articles appear to be regurgitating the same source, which is not well attributed. I’ll try to do some digging into the condition as soon as I can find time, and will write a follow-up post.

      Here’s a quick recap of what I’ve found so far: Feeding by humans may well be implicated. Some writers blame a high-sugar diet (as in white bread) while others blame a diet too high in protein. Many agree that a genetic problem is also a possible root cause. Who knows, maybe an underlying genetic predisposition to angel wing is triggered by a dietary imbalance or deficiency. The Swedish study, as reported in Wiki but with no citation, is interesting, but far too small to be conclusive as it tried altering the feeding habits of only one population for only year.

      The reports also disagree about what exactly occurs to create angel wing. Many suggest that it may be cured in young, still-developing birds by taping the feathers into the proper position against the body for days or weeks. The fact that angel wing is not generally seen in wild populations does not necessarily mean it doesn’t exist in wild populations, as the birds won’t survive long without the ability to fly.

      But perhaps the moral of the story is: don’t feed the geese. Bread is not good for geese, whether or not it causes angel wing.

  8. rbs Says:

    I noticed the wing deformities on two of the goslings last week, and was not surprised. This is at least the third time, possibly fourth in the last five years, that I have noticed the same deformity in MSP goslings. Assuming it’s the same parents coming back and nesting in the park year after year, it looks like there’s some bad genes being passed down.

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