There’s no winning in a stand-off against a goose.
Well, that’s what a study in the Wildlife Society Bulletin says, finding that the standard strategies for shooing these feisty fowl away are pointless. Particularly in the winter, this type of “harassment” has high stakes for the animals’ health.
Geese — Our Greatest Feathered Foes
Humans are always trying to shoo geese away, hassling them with waving hands and shrill shouts. And we’ve got good reason for our attempts. Not only are congregating geese famous for tarnishing the terrain, they’re also notoriously hostile — honking at, hissing at and otherwise terrorizing any hapless humans in their immediate vicinity.
That said, though these human harassment tactics — summed up as the sprinting and screeching approach — sometimes get geese to temporarily flee, they hardly fend off the flocks for good. In fact, a team of researchers recently reported that shooing geese from a particular area actually causes them to return to that same spot two times faster than if they took off on their own.
“When we harass them, it causes them to leave momentarily,” says Ryan Askren, one of the team's researchers and an ecologist at the University of Arkansas, in a press release. “But, more than likely, they still have that drive to come back.”
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According to the team, it isn’t actually spite that motivates their return. Instead, it’s the simple search for resources.
“When we’re harassing them, they probably have a biological reason to be there. There's some sort of resource, such as food or water, and they want to be there at that moment,” Askren adds in the release. “When they’re not being harassed, they're making the choice to leave the park because it's beneficial to them — there’s a resource elsewhere they want to access.”
The fact that these tactics fall short isn’t an issue for humans and humans alone. It’s also a problem for geese, since the harassment aims to prevent them from pestering people while also pushing geese — which traditionally migrate south in the winter and north in the summer — to stick to specific movement patterns.
“If a bird is hanging around Chicago in winter, it's probably not in good shape. It’s cold and doesn't have a lot of food,” says Mike Ward, another of the team's researchers and an ecologist at the University of Illinois, in the release. “The goal of harassment is never to hurt the geese, but to get them to use up energy during an already tough season, forcing them to migrate to warmer climates. Unfortunately, we found that doesn’t happen in practice.”
To study their immunity to intimidation, the researchers strapped the Canada geese in Chicago’s Marquette Park with special, goose-sized GPS transmitters throughout the winters of 2017 and 2018. They then trailed after the geese, banging wooden boards together, to see how harassment altered their behavior.
The results revealed that the geese transitioned into a state of alertness and fled, frequently traveling to another part of the same park or to nearby parks and ponds. Those that flew away, the researchers found, tended to return to their initial position in the park after an hour or so, resuming their previous activities of resting and foraging.
In other words, while the tactics frightened the flocks in the short term, the geese were much more worried about acquiring resources than they were about the harassment.
Ultimately, the researchers conclude that while human harassment cannot motivate geese migrations consistently, the techniques could show success in particularly cold conditions. When humans interfere, it could prevent flocks from finding the necessary resources for survival.
That said, the researchers still stress the shortfalls of these techniques, stating that geese’s adaptability and aptitude for separating annoyances from actual threats stand in the way of their future success.
“People don't realize how smart geese are,” Ward adds. “They've learned what the real risks are over the course of their lives or from each other. Maybe we'll figure out a good harassment technique, but it's likely they're going to continue to increase in urban areas because they found a good place.”