Who Cries for the Goose Killer?

Photo: Brian Finke

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.”

Lee Humberg surveying Canada geese in Brookville Park, Queens, earlier this month. Photo: Brian Finke

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.”

Canada geese gather at the Lake at Prospect Park this winter. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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?”

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.

Who Cries for the Goose Killer?