You can ignore the increasing amounts of leaves on the ground, and the ever declining temperatures. But when you hear the distinctive honking of a flock of geese as they migrate over your house, there is no denying that winter is on its way.
Geese have always heralded the change of seasons in the Chesapeake region. Great flocks, sporting black, white and brown plumage will grace our fields and shorelines.
Many of the geese that winter here, spend the spring nesting on the Ungava Peninsula in Quebec, Canada, about 1,600 miles away. The birds use a variety of nest sites, including open tundra and small islands, but all sites have an open view of water. Canada geese mate in their third year and pairs usually remain together as long as both birds are alive. The geese lay from one to 12 eggs, but four to five is the average. Eggs are incubated for four weeks. The gander never sits on the eggs, but he does stand guard nearby.
Although the downy goslings are able to leave the nest and feed themselves hours after hatching, the parents continue to watch over them. Canada geese are very protective of both nest and young. Twisting its neck into an “S” shape and hissing, a Canada goose will try to intimidate intruders.
The shortening of days and crisp frosts of early autumn signal the Canada geese to prepare for their annual journey south. Their migration route takes them along the eastern shore of Hudson Bay and James Bay, across central New York and eastern Pennsylvania and south to the Delmarva peninsula. This is the Atlantic Flyway. The Chesapeake Bay has become the most heavily used wintering areas for Canada geese using this flyway.
Migrating flocks may fly in long diagonal lines but are most noted for their distinctive “V” flying pattern. Some believe that this flying pattern reduces wind drag and lessens collisions between birds. Geese migrate in family units, and large groups of geese usually contain many families. When the lead goose tires, it merely drops back and another bird takes the lead. This system helps the geese complete their long migrations.
These migrating Canada geese are not the same as the geese you see throughout the year. Those are “resident” geese. Resident geese originated from the release of live decoys during the 1930s and government and private stocking programs. These geese have shorter movements, often breeding and wintering in the same state or region. Resident geese are found mainly on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay in urban and suburban areas.
During the late 1980s, the Atlantic population of Canada geese began to decline. The decline was due to a combination of factors. One problem has been the poor annual production of young caused by unfavorable weather conditions in northern nesting grounds. The Atlantic population experienced poor production from 1986 through 1996.
Another problem is a low survival rate caused largely by hunting pressures. Harvest rates increased in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. This was a result of liberal hunting regulations, more waterfowl hunters and the greater efficiency of hunters. Geese are imprinted to their wintering area. Adults lead their young to a wintering site. When the young mature, they, too, will lead their young to the same place, even if that area has become a popular hunting spot.
Midwinter waterfowl surveys in the Chesapeake Bay region also showed a decline in Canada geese, from more than 555,000 in 1985 to 298,000 in 1995. Because of this continued poor production, the hunting season for migrant Canada geese throughout the Atlantic Flyway was closed in 1995, upon the recommendation of the Atlantic Flyway Council, which represents federal, state and provincial wildlife agencies.
The Atlantic Flyway Council developed a plan to rebuild the Atlantic Canada goose population. The goal is to re-establish 150,000 breeding pairs in northern Quebec. Sport hunting would not resume until the number of breeding pairs reached 60,000 and there is convincing evidence that the population is undergoing sustained growth.
Since then, the Atlantic population of Canada geese has increased from a low of 29,000 breeding pairs in 1995 to 77,000 breeding pairs in 1999. The number of Canada geese wintering on the Chesapeake has also increased to more than 333,000 in 1998. Waterfowl biologists are expecting this year’s fall flight to be similar or slightly larger than last year.
Because of the increase in breeding pairs this past spring, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service approved a limited hunting season for 1999, with a daily limit of one goose. Despite this, some states have decided not to lift the hunting ban on Canada geese. Given the very limited season, many natural resources managers and hunters wanted to wait. Maryland and Delaware opted not to have a season in 1999. In Virginia, a limited Canada goose season will be offered.
Canada geese have been a source of pleasure, food and income to many people living in the Chesapeake Bay region. But their return also illustrates the natural cycle of life. These birds signal the change from fall to winter, from harvest to reflection. The arrival of geese reminds us to look back on the past year, weigh our accomplishments and plan for coming year.