Humberg’s ideas about managing urban wildlife are thoughtful and nuanced, but they might have a hard time getting through. In the summer of 2009, his team removed 1,235 geese. Last year, the radius of goose-capture sites was increased from five miles to seven, and the culling total grew to 1,676. He won’t predict how many geese will be removed this year, but whatever the final tally, the culling will likely take place under relentless media glare. The city recently announced plans for the geese to be sent to a slaughterhouse and distributed to Pennsylvania food banks, and the story was picked up by the Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Post, and The Village Voice (among others). Humberg tries to keep things in perspective. “I’ve been called lots of names,” he says. “All we can do is keep working.”
Throughout the nineteenth century, the Canada goose that New Yorkers thought of as a goose—a wild goose, back when we distinguished between wild and unwild—flew through the city each year on its way to or from summering in the Arctic. “They are best in October, November, and December: although there are not many killed in the latter month, yet they are found in our markets as late as January,” wrote Thomas F. De Voe in his report on food sold at city markets in the 1860s. Back then, a relatively small number of a different variety of Canada geese were imported from the Midwest and bred to become decoys (they would attract the migrating flock, causing them to land within easy range of hunters). In the thirties, in an effort to protect migratory birds, a federal law banned the use of live decoys, and people let theirs go free. These somewhat larger Canada geese stuck around, adapting to the rivers, waterways, parks, and golf courses of the city and its environs.
Then there’s the coincidence of habitat: We happened to build our airports on our migratory-waterfowl sites. JFK is situated adjacent to the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, and La Guardia near the nesting habitat in the Upper Bay and the beginning of Long Island Sound. The resulting conflict between goose and plane is a kind of embarrassment of environmental riches. “The Clean Water Act, the expansion of wildlife refuges, and the banning of DDT—all these things have happened, but it really was hard ten years ago to imagine that the bald eagle would be a danger to aircrafts,” says Travis L. DeVault, who studies bird strikes and aviation at USDA’s Wildlife Services field station at an old NASA base in Sandusky, Ohio. “Of course, this isn’t a bad thing. It means that we have to think about how these huge rebounds of wildlife will affect other human-wildlife interactions.”
“They say the birds flew into the plane. The plane flew into the geese. They have the birthright.”
The USDA’s increased presence in New York and other cities is another result of the change in urban ecology. Humberg is the Wildlife Services’ first biologist to be based in New York City. The unit was established in 1895 to manage conflicts between humans and wildlife (or “injurious animals”), and those conflicts traditionally happened out on the farm—between coyotes and sheep herders, raccoons and corn farmers. Now, with everything from beavers to whales returning to the city, the potential for rhapsodic enjoyment of the snowy egrets living on the Gowanus Canal goes hand in hand with the prospect of fatal interplay between laughing gulls and 757s.
Humberg and his team of wildlife biologists don’t spend all their days tending to geese. They advise on coyotes when they come to town, and recently had been weighing whether to manage the city’s vole population. Last year, Humberg was called into Central Park to trap rabid raccoons. (No one knew how many raccoons were in the park, nor how many were “hot,” but during performances of Hamlet in the Delacorte Theater in 2008, a stoned-seeming family of raccoons did make a nightly cameo.)
In general, the USDA is concerned with all the nonhuman species that no longer face any natural impediment toward population growth. Coyotes, deer, geese—these creatures have returned to the cities where hunting is extinct and where the lack of deadly competition makes for a new, human-filled Eden. “At the end of the day, we as humans have extirpated most of the predators of the species that we are now trying to manage as nuisances,” Humberg says. “Somebody has to do something.”
Wayne Pacelle, the president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, doesn’t necessarily disagree. “Our lives are entangled together now,” he says. His organization recognizes the need to get the geese population under control and has helped with the egg addling in Prospect Park. But Pacelle argues that the USDA is historically inclined to kill animals and is disinclined to rely on nonlethal means. “I don’t think that we’ve said that there’s never a situation where lethal conduct isn’t warranted,” Pacelle says carefully. “We’re asking, can we reduce the possibilities of the dangerous encounters?”