At the University of Manitoba Fort Garry campus in Winnipeg, near the entrance to the brutalist limestone Duff Roblin Building, I find myself in a staring match with an adult Canada goose. He stands on one leg. His eyes are black, glossy. Nearby is the female partner, settled on a nest. The nest is on a long, narrow cement planter, bare this early in the spring, between an industrial HVAC unit and a busy walkway. The pathway is littered with green-black goose droppings, piled outside the building entrance like cigarette butts. Behind me: another goose, a third, then a fourth. More and more black eyes that seem to look through me. The effect is Hitchcockian: as in the film The Birds, they seem to be biding their time pending a collective decision to attack, lest I blink, which I don’t.
Last spring, according to Lyle Morin, the university’s manager of general services, there were 300 adult Canada geese nesting on campus. With a student population of around 30,000, the ratio is significant: encounters happen. Male geese protect their nests aggressively. The wing protuberance at what we would consider an elbow in humans is called an alula, and it can strike like a mallet. Also, the average adult goose, which can weigh anywhere between 3 and 9 kilograms, produces about 1 kilogram of droppings a day (the weight of a cabbage), at a rate of one unit every ten to twenty minutes, so encounters happen underfoot too. And it’s not just a campus problem. In Winnipeg, come spring, pairs of Canada geese nest in highway medians; along retention ponds; in the Ikea parking lot where I’ve seen them stare down a Subaru and win (the Subaru backed off); and outside the Royal Canadian Mint, where they eat and eat and eat the grass and then, every ten to twenty minutes, return it, transubstantiated. The city says there are between 2,000 and 3,000 adult geese and goslings living in retention ponds each summer. The number of migratory geese, which don’t nest in the city but stop nearby to refuel on their way north, varies between 50,000 and 120,000 depending on the year.
When the snow melts every year, city dwellers across the country and Canada geese are locked in an odd, existential boxer’s clinch: Who’s winning? Who’ll blink first? It’s the rare urban wildlife encounter where the wildlife doesn’t act wild at all but, rather, smug and superior. The seasonal V-shaped honking flock overhead is as haunting as it is iconic, one in the settler’s starter pack of romantic Canadian imagery along with Mountie red serge and the Tragically Hip. We simultaneously love geese and the sound of them (which the Canadian nature PSA program Hinterland Who’s Who described as a deep “ka-lunk”) while, particularly in cities, we are also deeply annoyed by them.
The romantic link is strong. Joni Mitchell released her song “Urge for Going” as a B-side (to the single “You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio”) in 1972. “See the geese in chevron flight,” the song goes, “flapping and racing on before the snow.” Joni’s lyrics aside, Canada geese are neither picturesque nor evocative on purpose: the theory is that geese fly in a “V” for the aerodynamic benefit, with birds drafting off each other like cyclists in a Tour de France peloton. Still, airborne, they are deeply loved by those who like their symbolism with feathers (loon, goose, rock ptarmigan: all regional symbols of Canadianness). On the ground, though, it’s a more complicated relationship between them and us—one that has always been strained.
Sadly, the human response to ambivalence vis-à-vis nature has been, through history, to control that which we don’t understand or to look foolish in the attempt. So how to deal with an animal that Jim Sterba, author of Nature Wars: The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards into Battlegrounds, calls “lawn carp”? There have been ideas, some more and some less gruesome than others. In Winnipeg, the city has removed eggs from nests along the busy Kenaston Boulevard. In Ottawa, the city has “scrambled” goose eggs, where they’re physically shaken enough to kill the embryos. In other cities like Hamilton, Ontario, contractors have been hired to oil the eggs: they’re coated with vegetable oil which suffocates the embryo. With both scrambling and oiling, the point is to put the eggs back into the nest so the mother will continue to brood, none the wiser about the intervention. Eventually, when the eggs don’t hatch, she’ll just write them off as a loss—better luck next year. Removing eggs runs the risk of just prompting adult geese to set up a new nest a few feet away. It’s an awkward dance between geese and the people who think—or wish or imagine—they can outsmart and control nature. People are impatient. Geese play the long game, per Darwin. The geese usually win.
In 2017, the University of Manitoba had an idea for reducing its goose population on campus. It didn’t go well. Stephen Cumpsty, director of operations and maintenance, calls it “the incident.” They had hired a private contractor. “So they were breaking eggs,” he says. “But they used some techniques that were not . . . that were less than desirable. Okay, so let’s just say that.” Alexia Ruiz was a twenty-year-old design student at the time. In an email, she says she saw, through a window in the basement of the environmental design studio, “two pairs of boots walking towards the goose nest that we had all been monitoring throughout the spring, two men with baseball bats swung the bats aggressively at the eggs in the nest. It was horrific and shocking.” Local media at the time reported that the men also carried open umbrellas, presumably to fend off the unhappy adult geese.
“That particular incident was a public relations disaster,” says L. James Shapiro, who taught animal behaviour at the university for forty-nine years. In 2017, he was director of its avian behaviour laboratory in the department of psychology. The contractor, he says, “thought that by smashing the eggs, they would prevent goslings from hatching. Well, that’s true.” But smashing eggs won’t keep adult geese from nesting anew the next year. The geese that nest on campus are not just passing through. They are Winnipeggers, Shapiro says. They mate for life (with a mere 15 percent separation rate), overwinter as far south as Texas, and both adults and the young will return to the exact location where they were born and continue the cycle undeterred. All the university got from the “baseball bat and umbrella” incident of 2017 were complaints and a returning flock.
Why do Canada geese live in cities in the first place? It’s counterintuitive, from their point of view. There are buses, trucks, and Subarus; there are children who throw rocks; there’s noise, brutalist architecture, men with baseball bats and umbrellas. They can fly—why are they not living out where the drive-in theatres used to be? In fact, a city provides the ideal conditions for geese to live and breed. “If you’re a goose flying overhead and looking down,” says Shapiro, “you see this big city with many retention ponds, lush green lawns.” The retention ponds protect them from predators, of which, in the city, there are few save a scattering of foxes that don’t swim. Fresh-cut lawns provide ample food. And, in Canada, the Migratory Birds Convention Act, 1994, prohibits the disturbance of migratory bird eggs and nests without a permit (which the University of Manitoba had acquired in 2017) from the Canadian Wildlife Service.
So, for the most part, humans are not as predacious as, say, raccoons, which take eggs without permits from the Canadian Wildlife Service. Tall buildings are ideal places for geese to build nests: they can see in all directions. Geese are resilient. “People say we encroached on the wildlife,” with our urban sprawl and development, says Sterba. “But that’s only half the story. They encroached right back. And the reason is because our habitats are better than theirs. Especially for deer and geese, we put out all sorts of food for them. We’ve created this vast buffet that draws them in.”
Not everyone sees it this way. Colleen Cassady St. Clair, professor of biological sciences at the University of Alberta, calls them, clinically, “exploiters.” There are birds like horned grebes and northern shovelers that, over time, have left the cities because they can’t tolerate rackets. There are urban adapters, like mallards, who make do reluctantly. The exploiters, the geese, seem bent on taking over altogether. “If more people realize that Canada geese are actually a lot like rats,” she says, “there would be more societal support for proactive management.” Proactive management: egg removal, egg destruction, daily hunting quotas, or large-scale roundups and culls in which the adult geese are killed.
But, in these circumstances, which one—the goose or the nongoose—is the invasive species? By the 1930s, the Canada goose had been hunted to near extinction. Then it became a protected species, and conservation efforts by the Canadian Wildlife Service and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service brought it back to health, and in the growing cities, it found ideal conditions to propagate. “And in those environments,” says Shapiro, “they are increasingly coming in contact with a species which is the most dysfunctional, rapacious, and arrogant species on this planet, and that’s human beings.”
After the “incident” of 2017, the University of Manitoba decided to live and let live. It established a Goose Education and Awareness Committee in 2018 and launched a program called Respect the Goose: no crushing, stealing, or oiling eggs, certainly no roundups or culls. Since then, the university has opted for less offensive measures: covering planters or moving possible nest sites from high-traffic areas. It has restricted natural human wayfinding—cutting across a field, for example—with temporary fences in an effort to keep geese and people apart. In fact, Respect the Goose has been about changing human behaviour rather than the behaviour of the geese: keep calm, carry on, stay away from one another. A cold war. “We are not going to do population control here at the university,” says Cumpsty. “We will live with the geese, cohabitate with them, and make it work as best we can.”
Martha Ostenso’s 1925 novel Wild Geese is set on a rural prairie farm, and like almost all early twentieth-century Canadian gothic novels, it’s a story of loneliness and repression: a young woman from the city moves to a prairie farm to teach school nearby, contends with the difficult host family, sees many wild geese overhead, and is wistful. It’s a parable. “The fear of wilderness is a frequent thread in early Canadian white settler writing,” says Cynthia Sugars, professor of English at the University of Ottawa, in an email. “We see this in a modified form even now, in contemporary writing, in which there is a kind of ‘ecophobia’ associated with the havoc resulting from climate or industrial change.” The landscape and the wildlife exact revenge for the destruction inflicted upon them. Whereas the V-shaped formation of geese in Ostenso’s novel may be a symbol of the passage of time, “I guess this might be turned upside down when geese are encountered on land,” Sugars notes, as one sees in the dispassionate, black-eyed urban goose, a kind of “fallen angel.”
The notion reminds me of a collection at the Manitoba Museum: a dozen geese—both white fronted and Canada—but only their heads and necks, believed to have been preserved by taxidermy (arsenic, glass eyes) in the 1880s. Feathers had been formed into a hollow body made of wooden stakes: hunter’s decoys. “We had never seen goose decoys made of real geese before,” says Roland Sawatzky, the museum’s curator of history. They had belonged to Roderick Ross Sutherland (or his son), a lawyer and electric-railway magnate born in Winnipeg in 1862. They were Judas geese—lifelike, the same S-shaped feature to the necks as you’d see on a pond—devised to lure wild geese to their deaths for the benefit of the leisured class: fallen angels indeed. And fallen angels, we’re told, tempt us to sin.
The decoys had the same dark eyes that stare at me, surrounding me while guarding the university planter. Even in a progressive, friendly-to-students Respect the Goose milieu, I’m being sized up like Kafka’s Josef K. in The Trial for crimes not yet or never to be committed but which are always imagined, fantasized on both sides—in this case, when city people face wildlife, and revenge is in the mix. A cabbage a day in droppings. It’s a lot, but we humans are no treat either. I wipe the soles of my shoes on a patch of grass and back away.