By Mary Sisk
Rock River Current
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ROCKFORD — Amanda McCue was reading outside Rockford City Market when her dangling hand was snipped by an unexpected — although not terribly painful — attacker.
It was a Canadian goose.
If you live in the Rockford area, you know about the geese. Flocks of the large wild birds, which stand out for their long black necks and white chinstraps, usurp walkways, parks and streets to demand your food or protect their territory.
“They bit me last year on my feet,” said McCue, a Rockford resident.
You see more geese walking about in June and July, local experts say, because that’s when they molt their feathers and don’t fly. So if they’re walking inconsiderately on the pathways, it might be because they’re unable to fly away.
They also can be particularly aggressive in the spring and early summer as they chauffeur around young goslings or when competing for food. But while they can intimidate with their hiss, they don’t have actual teeth and aren’t likely to do severe damage to any human.
“Everybody goes ‘they’re mean.’ They’re wild,” said Karen Herdklotz, director of “Hoo” Haven Wildlife and Education Center. “Let’s remember we are talking about wild animals.”
Animal experts encourage people to cohabitate by largely leaving the birds alone to do bird things. They also say you shouldn’t give in to their pleas for bread or other food.
“I think they know people are afraid of them, so they can use that,” said Jennifer Kuroda, president of the Sinnissippi Audubon Society.
But in most cases, human food has no nutrition for geese and can be harmful in some cases.
“Bread is actually bad for birds because it fills their stomach up and they think they’re full, but there’s no nutritional value from bread to birds,” Kuroda said.
Herdklotz has rescued many geese at “Hoo” Haven. She said their behavior is usually tense, with the exception of goslings, which can occasionally be playful.
While they can be an annoyance, the once endangered creatures’ aggressive behavior is just their self-defense as they live in human-altered environments.
But that behavior can sometimes put them in a standoff of sorts with humans.
“They’re mean, and they stand there and stare at you,” said Donna Decker, a Rockford resident we talked to outside City Market along the riverfront. “I’m afraid they’re just going to come up and bite you.”
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That’s an experience many humans share from their interactions with Canadian geese, which were facing extinction in the 1950s and brought back through conservation efforts.
Now, the population growth is tremendous and there are various methods to control the local geese population. That includes egg addling, a method of reducing the number of goslings that hatch, and using herding dogs to move the geese.
“They are very aggressive and they’ve got a 6-foot wingspan,” said Bob Udelhofen, also a Rockford resident who has dealt with aggressive geese along the riverfront. “They’ll knock you right off a bicycle.”
Arshaun Harvey, 10, has also seen the aggressive side of geese.
“They hiss at me, but I hiss back,” he said.
They can make a simple walk along the Rock River an exercise in dodging feathered traffic, but experts say they have numerous reasons to act aggressive and it’s not always directed towards humans.
“If it’s a nesting pair, they will act that same way among other geese,” Kuroda said.
The best way to avoid an altercation is to ignore the geese and walk away.
Most geese have their babies the first two weeks in May, and they’re particularly aggressive to protect their eggs or goslings.
“If you don’t know where the nest is, then without you knowing it you’re 2-feet away,” Herdklotz said. “They’re going to chase you off so that you stay away.”
When people also don’t respond to geese appropriately, the issue can worsen. Being physically aggressive, loud or rowdy can cause the geese to react with hostility.
“You don’t know who did something to them when you weren’t around,” Herdklotz said. “Did somebody pick up rocks? Did somebody chase them because they got mad and thought it was funny? People do all sorts of not nice things and then all they do is make them worse.”
Living in an urban habitat like Rockford has also influenced their behavior.
“Unfortunately, they’ve kind of adapted to these urban areas,” Kuroda said. “This is another species that has really been brought back through conservation efforts and these conservation efforts led them to adapt to these cityscapes.”
Geese also often form gang broods, which is when two parent geese form a mixed group of their own goslings and other, unrelated goslings who tag along.
According to Kuroda, there’s a single gosling wandering downtown in search of a brood. You can find the baby goose swimming, hopping down stairs and hoping to mix in with the other geese.
Geese may be a nuisance, but Rockford is their home, too. Kuroda and Herdklotz encourage locals to be patient with the wild birds.
“We’ve destroyed so much of their habitat. I think people also have to understand that we’ve pushed a lot of wildlife out of where they’re supposed to be and where they can live,” Kuroda said. “We have to learn how to live with them in urban areas.”
Goose tips | facts
- Don’t feed the geese bread. Most human food has no nutritional value to geese.
- If a goose is being aggressive, stay calm, ignore them and walk away.
- Geese cannot fly in some weeks from June to July because they’re molting their feathers.
- Gang broods are mixed groups of goslings who may or may not be related to the two-parent geese.
- Some predators of geese are fox, raccoon and owls, according to the Rockford Park District.