Toward a Polemic on Urban Wildlife (Inspired by the Geese of Prospect Park)

Morningside Goose Family in Early May

The Morningside Park goose family seems to have vanished into thin air.  As far as I can tell, no one has seen the geese for at least 10 days. I assumed they had wandered across Frederick Douglass Plaza to one of Central Park’s lovely bodies of water. But on a visit last weekend to the Meer, I saw no Canada geese at all.

Geese molt at this time of year, losing and regrowing their feathers. Until the new feathers grow in, they cannot fly, making even the short distance from Morningside Park to Central Park a dangerous trek through the streets of New York.  Still, the geese may well have waddled their way  into the Big Park.

Morningside geese in June

I asked Sergeant Sunny Corrao of the Urban Park Rangers whether she has seen our goose family, which is easily distinguishable by the four goslings, two with a deformity called angel wing. She has not.

The disappearance of our little goose family would be no more than a locally intriguing mystery were it not for the news that last Thursday, according to The New York Times, the United States Department of Agriculture captured and killed 400 Canada geese in Prospect Park. Brooklyn park-goers are sad and angry.

Canada geese mitigation measures,” to use the somewhat Orwellian official term, went into high gear after US Airways Flight 1549 collided with a flock of migrating geese in January 2009, and was forced to land in the Hudson River off Manhattan’s west side.

In 2009, over 1,200 city geese were captured and killed within a five-mile radius of JFK and LaGuardia Airports. In June 2010, the radius was extended to seven miles, which places new parks within the kill, or mitigation, zone, including Prospect, Morningside and Central Parks.

It seems extraordinary that animals that were long celebrated as symbols of wildness and freedom are now widely considered a pest species, reviled for striking airplanes, damaging crops and fouling (pun half-intended) golf courses and parks. When I was a child visiting the country, I ran outside at the wild sound of honking to watch the geese flying overhead on their strange journey to far-off lands. But times have changed; many flocks no longer migrate and populations have exploded.

Clearly, the safety of human air travelers must take precedence over the geese. But was the killing of so many resident animals necessary?  What non-lethal measures can be used to control NYC’s Canada geese?  Were such measures tried before the decision to kill Prospect Park’s flocks?  I don’t know the answers, because there has been little effective communication from city, state and federal agencies and the media seems mostly interested in the public’s outrage and sorrow.

I’ve scheduled an interview with a biologist from USDA’s Wildlife Services to try to answer some of these questions.  I understand the public outcry. I feel an attachment to the Morningside geese, and hope to find out whether they, too, were rounded up as air hazards.

But really, the underlying issue is bigger than Canada geese, even 400 of them.

Across the country, conflict between wildlife and humans is on the rise, and NYC is no exception.

Riverside Park Raccoon

Central Park coyote: Bruce Yolton/

To date in 2010, a rabies epidemic, now almost extinguished by a labor-intensive vaccination program, raced through the Central Park raccoon population, putting park-goers at risk, while coyotes roamed the island from its northern tip to Tribeca. Meanwhile, just across the river in New Jersey, an increase in black bears has led to an ill-advised campaign to reinstate bear hunting.

We need an informed public debate about the changing relationship between wildlife and humans in an increasingly developed world. The term, “wildlife management,” should no longer call up only images of bison, caribou and wolves in the national parks of the west.  Our densely populated cities and suburbs are the new epicenter of human-wildlife conflict and so, like it or not, of wildlife management.

Feeding of animals by humans, whether intentional or inadvertent, is a key problem. Feeding draws animals closer and provides people with pleasure, companionship and a feeling of connection to nature, despite its often negative effects on the wildlife. Many animal populations expand or contract based on availability of food, and the association of humans with food is the primary cause of problems, including injury.

Riverside Park squirrel on the prowl

In Morningside Park, people love to feed the ducks, geese and pigeons. Riverside Park has several regular feeders of squirrels.  In Prospect Park, ironically, some of the same people who care for and mourn the geese may have contributed to the problem by regularly feeding the birds, thereby increasing their numbers.

But the desire to connect to animals is profound.  Posting signs telling people not to feed the animals is not enough.

Rabies Alert: Do not feed wildlife

Any campaign to discourage feeding will have to acknowledge this desire and provide people with alternative ways to connect to nature. Groups like the Urban Park Rangers already provide free programs that introduce both children and adults to the birds and other animals that live in our parks. Programs can engage educators, artists, wildlife biologists and naturalists to impart, with passion but without sentimentality, the excitement and pleasure of observing wild creatures from a distance without interfering or trying to lure them into a relationship that gratifies us yet places the animals at risk.

Wild Geese

by Mary Oliver (This is an excerpt – read the whole poem)

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Explore posts in the same categories: 2010, Birds, Central Park, coyotes, In the City, July, Morningside Park, NYC Parks, raccoons, Riverside Park, Squirrels, Wildlife/Natural History

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10 Comments on “Toward a Polemic on Urban Wildlife (Inspired by the Geese of Prospect Park)”

  1. […] brings up the fascinating issue of human-wildlife conflict in urban centers.  New York City’s raptor population, once virtually nonexistent, is growing […]

  2. […] which makes us consider them pests that need to be eradicated, as in this summer’s killing of geese in Prospect Park.  Unnaturally dense populations allow disease to flourish and spread.  So if you have a soft spot […]

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  4. Danielle Says:

    My question is simply do the geese get to take over Prospect Park from the native species? They are a very fast breeding bird and aggressive. Do they get to drive away the native birds and ducks? And so what is the solution? How do you keep the population down and manageable without killing anything? If the geese aren’t killed then do they drive away the migratory birds and local species?

    • I don’t know the answers, Danielle. NYC Audubon Society, while not opposed to lethal control, believes that lethal control should be a last option and that non-lethal efforts had not been exhausted. Glenn Phillips, NYC Audubon director, makes the point that, unless the habitat is made less hospitable, new geese will simply move in and take up residence. He also questions whether culling nonmigratory geese will have any real impact on air safety, given that air strikes (including the Hudson River landing) are generally caused by migratory geese. (Audio interview on The Brian Lehrer Show)

  5. Rebecca Says:

    I am so sorry to hear that the geese you’ve invested so much time in observing may have met this unfortunate end. Canada Geese are overpopulated nuisance animals in many areas, but it’s one thing to accept that abstractly and another thing entirely when it’s a specific family of geese you’re attached to. I mean, I understand the need for control of white-tailed deer populations in many areas, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t be upset if something happened to the doe with twins who spends her time in the woods along our driveway. It’s a tough issue.

    • Rebecca, I agree with you: it’s a tough issue and, sometimes, tough calls need to be made. Because it’s such an emotional issue on all sides, it’s surprisingly hard to to get at the facts about animals that are considered nuisances and pests. Still killing 400 geese in a city park certainly seems excessive: is there really no other way to control the flock? I look forward to hearing from the USDA biologist next week; he has been very informative, knowledgeable and open to questions in past interviews. Thanks for commenting. Oh, and I took the liberty of fixing the typo you mentioned & then deleting your second post :).

  6. Charlotte Says:

    The killing of all those geese is tragic. Surely the US dept of ag could have come up with a better plan (salt on their wings, round them up and take them 8 miles out?). I agree with Linda, why don’t they deal with pilot fatigue, and raise their pay while they’re at it. Ugh, no wonder people are angry.

    Very good breakdown of these important and pressing issues.

  7. linda Says:

    Yes that whole “Miracle on the Hudson” turned into a media circus and the geese are the unlucky recipients.There are so many causes of airplane crashes and most sadly are deadly. The geese are an easy target sitting ducks forgive the pun. The irony is no one died in that crash yet pilot fatigue which caused the crash in Buffalo last year was tragic.I wonder how much the airlines are doing about overworked pilots. it is always easier to kill animals first and ask questions later.

  8. mthew Says:

    A very well-stated take on the issue.

    Although there aren’t many migratory Canada geese overhead, we in the city can still see wedges of snow geese heading north and south in season.

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