Earlier this spring, Lee Humberg directed a small team of biologists to Rikers Island in an effort to avoid the unavoidable. They were on a mission to find young, baseball-size eggs, five or six per nest, and slather them with enough oil so that they would not hatch furry yellow goslings that would grow to become airplane-threatening geese the size of winged dogs. Humberg, a wildlife biologist and district supervisor for the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, an agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, pointed his team to the shore of the island, just a few dozen yards from the runways at La Guardia, where they watched for lone ganders on guard. Following protocol, one team member warded off the gander and hen—each hissing, neck stretched in alarm—while a second sprayed each egg with corn oil, a process known as addling. It takes only a few minutes to addle a nest full of eggs, after which the parent geese return to their old routine, unaware that their eggs are unlikely to hatch.
An egg-addling policy has been in effect in the New York City area for a decade and has been judged something of a success: The USDA found 221 eggs to oil on Rikers in 2001, whereas this spring Humberg’s team oiled only 34. Which is not to say the goose population in New York has decreased. On the contrary: The population is exploding. In 2005, there were estimated to be 161,000 geese in New York State; by 2010, the population had increased to 257,000. An unprecedented 15,000 to 20,000 Canada geese currently live year-round in the metropolitan region. The Port Authority estimates that over the past three decades, there have been as many as 315 bird-plane collisions each year.
Reducing these numbers is Humberg’s primary professional responsibility. As he sees it, egg addling is “one tool in the toolbox.” Other tools the USDA has used include remote-controlled boats and kites that resemble eagles. At Rikers, it has encouraged the prison to fill in a marshy area as part of a “habitat modification” program. (It would have also recommended planting tall grasses that geese find unpalatable, but there were concerns that inmates might hide in them.) Earlier this year, the Prospect Park Alliance hired dogs to harass the geese, and it appears that some of them temporarily relocated to Green-Wood Cemetery, where they were further harassed by an eagle kite.
Humberg is supportive of all these efforts, but he knows that oiling and harassment will not be nearly sufficient to reduce the region’s Canada-goose population to a number that wildlife-management agencies would deem more acceptable, about 5,000. “If all you’re doing is goose harassment every day, it’s very frustrating, because you’re just playing Ping-Pong with the birds,” he says. “It’s basically an arms race to come up with the tools to deal with them.” And so his team has spent the past two years patrolling the city’s parks, cataloguing all the geese that live near the airports, and comparing notes on where they congregate. By the end of this month, the flocks will have settled in for molting season, a monthlong period when they lose their outer feathers and are temporarily unable to fly.
This is when Humberg and his team plan to round up the geese and gas them.
Humberg prefers the word cull, or remove. “I call it a slaughter,” says Mary Beth Artz, a singer and wildlife advocate and one of the more ardent defenders of the city’s geese. She is referring to the high-profile incident from last summer, when Humberg and his team culled 368 geese from Prospect Park. Similar goose removals had been happening for years—in fact, there had been others all around the city that season: 55 geese at Roberto Clemente State Park in the Bronx, 146 in Marine Park Golf Course in Brooklyn, 109 at the Douglaston Park Golf Course in Queens. But in Prospect Park, the geese shared their surroundings with thousands of animal-rights-interested parkgoers as well as an outrage-fanning local press. And so the Prospect Park slaughter quickly became legend.
Goose activists refer to the place where the roundup happened as the kill zone. They talk about its having occurred covertly in the middle of the night. The Brooklyn Paper described the removal as a “horror-movie-style measure” and ran a photo with the following caption: “All the geese in this picture are dead, thanks to a federal program to exterminate animals that get in the way of airplanes. Tell that to the kids.” Since then, there have been demonstrations and meetings, and most recently, goose activists have established 24/7 goose patrols in an effort to protect the geese from another removal. “If the USDA comes in, we want to be there and document it,” says Artz. A Brooklyn councilman has asked that determinations about future slaughters be made in the “light of day,” not “the cloak of night.”