One of the species that wildlife biologists and hunters sought to protect in the early 1970s was the Canada goose. This familiar species is now so common as to qualify as a pest, but that was not the case five decades ago. The species known as Canada goose is actually several ‘races’ ranging in size from the duck-sized Cackling goose to the Greater Canada goose, the largest of its kind. These all evolved in their own distinct range, but human influence changed all that.
Goosing the population
One of the efforts to give the Greater Canada geese a leg up in population size was an introduction program in Rochester, Minnesota where water remained open all year round thanks to some sort of industrial activity. Flocks of Canada geese quickly adapted to the year-round availability of food and fresh water. Their numbers escalated.
The same thing happened at Fermilab, the scientific research center west of Chicago in the suburb of Batavia. Cooling ponds from the national accelerator research facilities offered inviting habitat to geese. A few began to hang out year-round and over the last few decades a massive population of non-migratory geese fanned out across the suburbs to breed in local marshes and take over golf courses and corporate campuses where short green grass mimics the growth typical of tundra landscapes where Canada geese once migrated for breeding.
As a lifelong birder it has been interesting to watch this evolutionary phenomenon in real time. Back when I started birding, it was a real treat to see a flock of migrating Canada geese each spring. Their honking in the distance heralded the arrival of spring. That was good news to this young man after training in cold weather through Januray and February. Long skeins of geese were a sign of better things to come.
These days there is hardly a run or a ride in which I don’t hear or see Canada geese along the way. We live next to a wetland and all winter the flocks of Canada geese have ebbed and flowed, sometimes covering the entire march with their brown, black and white bodies. While feeding, they tip their bodies up and expose the white undersides of their tail.
The large flocks of Canada geese in Illinois also attract other species including white-fronted geese, snow geese and its race variant the Blue goose. Walking our dog in the morning, I walk past the large retention pond above the marsh and scan the resting flocks of Canada geese for the odd field mark that indicates another species.
A few weeks ago there were so many geese resting on the water overnight their voices could be heard through the walls of our house. At first I thought they were the sound of a TV or radio left on by my stepson in the bedroom next to ours. I got up to check but it wasn’t the source. Heading downstairs, I poked my head out the back door and listened to the chuckling sound of thousands of geese keeping each other company through the dark night.
I find their feathers on our lawn after they waddle up to gorge themselves at our feeders.
A day or two later the remains of a Canada goose were scattered along the shore above the retention pond. We have coyotes that frequent the wild places behind our home and wander the bike paths looking for rabbits and other prey. A year ago they took a small dog behind a house five doors away from us. The neighbors all freak out when they hear that coyotes are about. They’re always with us. That much I know from the tracks they leave in the mud and the snow, depending on the season. We can hear the pack howling some nights across the wetland.
I’ve met up with coyotes in the forest preserves while running and riding, or spotted them crossing the road in front of me. Some people hate these wild canids, but I find them fascinating.
Fast food for hawks
There’s a third species of wildlife that has made a comeback in our area as well. That is the Cooper’s hawk, an accipiter species adept at snatching birds in mid-air, and willing to pursue them by foot to chase prey out of a bush or thicket. These beautiful birds are dreaded by some folks that lose feeder birds to the clutches of such an able hunter. But I welcome them and enjoy seeing them flap and sail along the wood edges scaring up prey to live another day.
We humans not so different from any of these species of wildlife. We’re as populous as geese, as stealthy as coyotes on the prowl and ruthlessly opportunistic as hawks on the hunt. All are part of the evolutionary process. It’s only when people mess with it that things get out of whack. Then nature sort of whacks back.
There’s a lesson in that for all of us. We’re not so different from these wild creatures as some might like to lead us to believe. Plus I find inspiration in the flight-sharing duties of Canada geese in an echelon, the loping running style of a coyote and the burst of speed coming from the breast muscles of a Cooper’s hawk in pursuit. It’s all wild.