Reviewing the accusations and acrimony makes Humberg’s jaw tighten. “It was not a black-ops situation,” he says. He stresses that he’s not some kind of Navy SEAL; he is just a wildlife biologist who happens to have a military look. “I got my first flattop when I was 10,” he says. “But everyone who comes up to me says, ‘Are you in the military?’
“And it wasn’t in the middle of the night,” he adds. We are at a Japanese restaurant near JFK, where he has been patrolling runways all day, and even though his chicken negimaki is getting cold, he puts down his fork to focus. “Look, we try to start very early in the morning so that the geese don’t overheat. When they are in our care, we have to take the best possible care of them.” He pauses. “The other thing is that in the morning, they are flocked tight, and so it’s easier to round them up.”
On that summer morning at the Lake at Prospect Park, Humberg explains, the USDA employees got into their kayaks and slowly cajoled the geese onto the shore. Waddling to land, the geese entered a corral, after which they were put into poultry-transport crates and loaded onto a trailer. The mature geese were separated from the goslings. Later that day, in a facility the USDA prefers not to name, the geese were gassed.
“Euthanized,” Humberg clarifies, his jaw tightening again. “They use carbon dioxide,” he says. “I mean, it’s approved by the American Veterinary Medical Association. The carbon dioxide causes the geese to become unconscious and then stop breathing. And that’s it.” Soon thereafter, they were dispatched to a landfill.
The removal of Canada geese is part of a plan by local, state, and federal officials to reduce bird strikes near the city’s airports. The precipitating incident, of course, was the 2009 crash-landing of US Airways Flight 1549, which experienced engine failure when it partially digested a flock of geese shortly after takeoff from La Guardia. The Miracle on the Hudson was a miracle, but a 1960 collision between an airplane taking off from Logan airport and a flock of starlings ended with 62 dead. Then there was a 1973 jet-cowbird collision at an Atlanta airport that killed seven people. In 1991, a plane’s brakes were destroyed by a pack of gulls off JFK (aborting takeoff), and in 2000 at LAX, a Western gull forced a 747 to dump 83 tons of jet fuel after parts of the destroyed engine fell to a public beach.
If a bird is to have a good chance of avoiding a plane, it should be small and it should travel alone. Geese fail on both counts. While the average bird that collides with a plane has a 10 percent chance of causing damage, a goose’s odds are near 50 percent. And so the FAA has established a “zero-tolerance for Canada geese on or near airports,” as a recent USDA report puts it.
In the immediate aftermath of Flight 1549, many New Yorkers saw the logic in reducing the number of geese who share flight patterns with airplanes. But this is also a city that has recently become enamored of its ecological vitality, and sympathies are getting muddled. We obsess over the endangered peregrine falcons that live on the Verrazano-Narrows and Throgs Neck bridges; our public schools adopt hawks as their mascot (P.S. 6 on the Upper East Side has chosen Pale Male); and at any given time of day, thousands of us watch a baby hawk sleep in its nest, thanks to the “hawk cam” the New York Times installed at the window of the NYU president’s office. Any animal larger than a rat or a pigeon has a chance at becoming our latest communal pet. Yes, geese produce a pound of excrement a day, which can contaminate ponds and lakes, not to mention ball fields and picnics, but they are also pet-size, and feedable, and not usually sold at farmers’ markets. And in formation, they are beautiful: A flock of geese appears to be following a flight course laid out before human time, running on an ancient and more poetic guidance system than that annoying police chopper.
Humberg has been stationed in New York for four years, having grown up in Indiana and worked in Wisconsin. He still gets noticeably excited every time he spots an ibis off the coast of Queens, or egrets in Marine Park. The way he sees it, balancing the interests of a flock of birds with the interests of jet passengers is just part of living in a vibrant ecology. “All we’re trying to do is take an imbalance and bring it to an equilibrium,” he says. In rural areas, hunting checks overpopulation. Since hunting is not really an option in New York City, the destruction of nonmigrating geese has to be methodical, centrally planned, and widespread. “It’s about working to a manageable goose population, so that we can incorporate more nonlethal means.”