To its credit, the USDA is reporting progress on nonlethal methods of bird-strike prevention. At the Sandusky, Ohio, field station, the department is studying the effects of various light frequencies on birds and investigating the possibility of attaching bird-repellent lights to airplanes. The agency continues to recommend relandscaping bird-friendly zones, advocating for the kinds of shrubs that reduce the chance of nesting. It points to a successful relocation program that took place with gulls near JFK in the nineties.
But at the same time, the department maintains that to continue its success with geese, it can’t rule out culling them. “Rikers is a really great success story,” Humberg says. According to the FAA’s Wildlife Strike Database, in the seven years before the first goose roundup at Rikers Island, there were sixteen Canada-goose strikes at nearby La Guardia. The USDA euthanized 514 geese from the island in 2004, about 300 the next year, and by last year had removed only 32. In the seven years since the first roundup began, the number of Canada-goose strikes at La Guardia has dropped to five. Humberg argues that once the population is brought under control with roundups, it can then be managed with less lethal options, such as egg addling.
None of this is likely to pacify the goose defenders at Prospect Park, who consider even egg addling a crime. “It’s like a goose abortion,” says Artz. “They say the birds flew into the plane. The plane flew into the geese. They have the birthright.” She proposes more study of migration routes, noting that in Israel, the air force has used such data to redirect planes and decrease the number of bird strikes. In the meantime, she is determined to be present at this year’s Prospect Park culling, to bear witness to the slaughter. “We’ve got momentum now,” she says. The Prospect Park group has also learned about upstate New Yorkers protesting the roundup planned for Saranac Lake, in the Adirondacks, where a local high school, its fields carpeted by a layer of feces, called the USDA to do something about the geese. “We’re joining in their fight,” she says.
There is a little ball field off Cross Bay Boulevard in Queens called the Broad Channel Athletic Club Memorial Field. A shamrock decorated with the words GOD BLESS USA greets all creatures that enter. As Humberg walks past the home dugout and down the first-base line, it doesn’t look very promising as a goose habitat, but then there they are, a gaggle. “You have to respect non-migrating Canada geese,” he says. “They were not native here, and they capitalized on the human environment and thrived.” He walks slowly down the third-base line, and the geese begin to slowly move to the area behind home plate.
We study the geese. What do they eat? “Basically, anything green,” Humberg says. He is standing still. The geese are too, but then edge close to the woods. “The gizzard is a very hard, muscular organ. They pick up grit as they eat, and the grit goes into the gizzard, and that grinds what they eat—that’s the mastication.”
He steps closer; the geese freeze. “These geese are pretty used to people,” he says. They begin to bow, long black necks lowering to munch the turf that has been manicured for the next ball game.
“They eat the grass, of course,” Humberg says, “and grass is not the most nutritious thing, but we make it better for them. We cut it. And then we fertilize it, which makes it more nutritious. We’re growing superfood for them.”
Suddenly, the geese react to something. “Did you see that?” Humberg asked. “Their heads picked up because they are very aware of what is going on. They know when people come and go.” The geese are looking at him, possibly debating a move.
“This could be a good place for them,” Humberg says, referring to their fateful molting decision. Unlike most other bird species, geese molt at once, as a group—the idea being, from an evolutionary standpoint, that a predator would only kill so many, and that some will always survive. The big question for Humberg is: Will this small flock stay here, or will they move on to another waterfront site in Queens or Brooklyn, or even Nassau County?
“I don’t know what’s down there,” he says, pointing to a path. “If there is water, then they might stay. You have to remember, everything is in flux now.”
Humberg will be back—that is for certain. The geese watch him warily as he walks away, gets in his pickup, and drives slowly back to JFK.