Canada geese expand range, migrate later as environment shifts

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Capital News Service

LANSING — The Canada goose is an icon of the North American wilderness.

Characterized by their elongated necks and little black heads, the waterfowl are often seen flying southbound in ‘V’ formations.

But in recent years, their migratory and stationary behaviors have been changing, scientists say. 

Many groups are migrating later than ever, said Beth Clawson, a state coordinator at Michigan State University’s Kalamazoo County Extension.

“Over time, geese have been starting their migrations later and later in the season. It’s because, if the weather is survivable and sufficient food is available, they have no reason to leave,” she said.

Modern farming encourages the birds to remain stationary late into the year, she said.  “When farmers leave grain waste in their fields, it becomes an attractive and reliable food source for geese.”

The increase in global temperatures also affects migration, Clawson said. “As climate change intensifies, environments throughout North America are becoming warmer. As a result, not only are many Canada geese delaying their migrations, but some have also stopped flying as far south as they once had.”

Temperature is a key factor for when migratory birds start flights southward. With climates warming, the cool weather that acts as a trigger arrives later — if at all. 

Many species are also showing a permanent northward shift in their ranges, Clawson said.  

“While the term ‘climate migrant’ is generally used when talking about people, it absolutely applies to other species as well. Birds, mammals and other animals are being forced to move farther and farther north as their native habitats become less hospitable.”

According to Clawsom, terrestrial species move an average of 10 miles northward per decade. Many animals are forced to expand their territories into human-claimed areas, she said. 

Large numbers of Canada geese have relocated to crop fields and suburban neighborhoods.

“Land fragmentation is happening everywhere — we humans and our industries are cutting and carving up the land, disrupting the local ecosystems and displacing species from their natural habitats,” Clawson said.

Canada geese, once on the verge of extinction, have made a comeback after adapting to the environment.
Canada geese, once on the verge of extinction, have made a comeback after adapting to the environment.

It’s no surprise Canada geese are adapting to such pressures. 

David Luukkonen, a goose expert and retired researcher for the Department of Natural Resources, agrees that behaviors are certainly the birds’ response to drastic changes in their environment. 

The past 100 years have been turbulent for the Canada goose, he said. 

“By the mid-twentieth century, habitat loss and unregulated hunting had the geese teetering on extinction,” said Luukkonen, a wildlife biologist. “Thanks to restoration efforts made by state and national conservation agencies, though, the Canada goose was able to make a comeback — and then some.” 

Since bouncing back from near-destruction, the waterfowl have hit another extreme: a population explosion. The challenge now is managing the abundance of geese and maintaining the distribution of their specific populations, Luukkonen said. 

“There are actually multiple subspecies — there’s the giant Canada goose that ranges from the northern U.S. into southern Canada, the cackling goose that inhabits Arctic Canada and a handful of others,” he said. “We don’t want to lose any of the genetic variation that’s developed within these populations.”

The goal now is to establish and maintain a balance with the geese.

“People get mad at the geese for overtaking their property, but they’re just doing what they’ve always done: trying to survive,” he said. “Ultimately, it comes down to balancing our needs with theirs — to reduce ‘conflicts’ with geese, among other animals, we need to figure out better ways to manage the environment so we can successfully coexist.”

Anne Hooper writes for Great Lakes Echo.

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