Fowl Play

in Main Feature

Along the main drag in East Haven, Connecticut, five miles out of range of Harkness Tower’s carillon, is what may be the largest American flag known to man, its wingspan so officious that, looking at it from below, you might easily take it for the sky itself. Further down the road is a sign for the local Hobby Lobby and directly above it another that says, “Big Lots,” the ‘L’ rubbed away by rain, likely the work of a hurricane with a keen eye for satire, if not subtlety. And further still, where small town turns to tree cover, is a yard sign with the words: “Saint Augustine: Next Left.” This does seem like a place where you might come to confess––something dark or something lovely, really anything at all––with the woods as your witness. 

I wasn’t here to confess but to find what I thought were the grounds of an ignominious and odd battle in the region’s colonial history. In early August, while looking for ten-dollar Loeb Classical editions at Whitlock’s Book Barn, a farmhouse turned used bookstore in Bethany, CT, I came across a local history with a title too muscular to miss: The Republic of New Haven: A History of Municipal Evolution by Charles Herbert Levermore. The book looked ancient and I opened it slowly. Having skimmed the table of contents, I flipped to a section titled “The Quarrel with East Haven,” expecting a kind of civil war in miniature. What I found instead was a petty town squabble involving the Governor of the Connecticut Colony and a gaggle of geese. At the turn of the 18th century, somewhere in the Puritan wilderness, the Governor of Connecticut was unleashing an Antietam on the local waterfowl.

The people of East Haven indulged their geese, letting them waddle through town like princelings on the grounds of an Old Regime château. No farm was spared––not even Governor Gurdon Saltonstall’s. The Governor, “vexed with this invasion of his rights,” according to Levermore, “proclaimed a defensive war, attacked and routed the feathered army, making a great slaughter among them.”   

In the next election, not a single vote was cast for Governor Saltonstall in East Haven. In retaliation, Saltonstall revoked the town’s newly won independence and it was resorbed into New Haven proper.   

The story ended there, and I found nothing more when I researched the skirmish online. I began to suspect it was all apocryphal, nothing more than a libel or a legend gone stale. So, to settle the issue, I steeled myself to cold call the patrician scions of the Saltonstall family and contacted the estate, now a “super premium” olive oil purveyor in Petaluma, CA. The voice that answered the phone didn’t ring with the haughty timbre of old Atlantic merchants, but was gentle and sweet-toned. The conversation ranged over a thousand years of family lore, meandering with the contour of a gooseneck river––yet no mention of the geese or their massacre. 

The last chance at clarity was in the colonial records. They told a bloodless story. What I had thought was a madman’s little civil war was only the Governor of Connecticut madly scattering geese from his lawn. No matter how often he tried to eject them from the grass, the geese returned. 

I paid a visit to the burned-out foundation of Governor Saltonstall’s farm on the east edge of Furnace Lake in East Haven. Perhaps centuries ago Old Light preachers howled jeremiads there and Paul Bunyan types felled trees. But that day the leaves were crimson and it was peaceful.   

***

The following week, I was reading The New York Times online when I noticed a new species of advertisement pop up at the top of the page: goose control. My weeks of digging through internet archives for the faintest honk of the geese of East Haven had led Google to suspect I had a problem and inferred I needed a prod to handle it. Another week went by and the ads didn’t stop. Soon I was inundated with them––a gaggle nesting on my digital lawn. 

I couldn’t help myself. I clicked on one, an ad for Geese Peace, Inc., one of many companies that service the New Haven area. The company promised to address the goose problem “humanely and without controversy,” elaborating with words grave enough to begin a manifesto: “Canada geese and other wildlife live within or at the fringe of our landscapes and communities placing them in conflict with us.” The campaign the Governor had taken up centuries earlier was evidently still in progress and with its share of partisans. 

As is often the case in partisan conflicts, the etiology of the problem is ignored and all that’s left are its symptoms. This one began when, in the 19th century, market hunters invented a cruel technique to capture wild migratory geese and harvest them for their down. The hunters would catch a few dozen geese, clip their feathers to prevent them from flying away, and release them on a lake. Dozens of other migratory flocks would then land on the water, seduced by the appearance of safety. Once the lake was full, the market hunters would blast it with rifle fire. The geese would take off and the sky would become so crowded that day turned to night. Anywhere the hunters aimed they struck a bird. For a moment, every hunter had the skill of Apollo. 

For a century, this was the norm. Over and over, the practice proved its efficacy and the Canada goose was systematically destroyed. But as conservation came to be a fixture of American politics, the Canada goose found an unlikely ally in the federal government. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act, passed by Congress in 1918, prohibited the slaughter and trade of migratory birds without a license from the Fish and Wildlife Service and mandated that market hunters release their captured stock. The geese they were releasing, however, had been bred in captivity, had their wings clipped, and couldn’t migrate. Their biology broken, they became “residents.”

Humans forced geese to live contrary to their nature. But nature was already being remade in a way that coincidentally suited the geese. According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab, “as lawns started to proliferate, many of these resident geese flocks began to thrive and expand their range.” The suburbs, with their manicured grass, man-made lakes, athletic fields, and golf courses, created the perfect conditions for geese––plenty of nutrients, open space, and no natural predators to evade. Over a 40-year period, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recorded roughly a doubling in the population of migratory geese in North America––from 1,000,000 in 1970 to 1,840,000 in 2012. In contrast, during the same period, the resident goose population increased nearly 15-fold––from 250,000 to 3,850,000––eclipsing the migratory population. In Connecticut alone, between 1950 and 2009, the overall goose population increased from fewer than 500 to over 52,000. If hubris begets nemesis, humans have gotten theirs.   

***

A few geese here and there are unlikely to ruffle feathers. But the fantasy of suburbia––of nature pristine, tidy, and subjugated––doesn’t comport well with thousands of geese roaming free, carving out their own territory, leaving turdulent gifts in their wake. Suburbanites’ main concern is geese’s propensity for the excremental act. In a day, a single goose will deposit up to two pounds of turd––14 percent of its body weight. The 50,000 geese in Connecticut, in a week, will produce 350 tons of turd, or, for scale, the weight of two blue whales. In 2018, the mayor’s office in Milford, CT, received “more feedback about goose poop than just about any other matter of city business.” 

The problem extends beyond despoiled soccer fields. Contamination of watersheds and lakes from Canada goose feces is well-documented. Some strains of bacteria in samples of goose feces, when hit with a host of antibiotics, showed resistance. Backyards, lawns, and playgrounds ridden with droppings pose a health risk to small children.

Canada geese are “a social problem,” Min Huang, a wildlife biologist at Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, told me. “The state’s implemented liberal hunting seasons in September, January, and February to reduce the numbers,” he said. “There’s been legislation on the books since 2002, allowing for goose round-ups. Not a single town has taken advantage of it to avoid the controversy. They’re spending money on harassing the birds and putting up effigies.” Mr. Huang added that the Yale golf course was a perfect example of the effigy approach gone awry––in the past, there were coyote decoys on the grounds, but the geese quickly became habituated to them and used them for shade. Scott Ramsay, who was superintendent of the golf course for 17 years and left the position this past September, kept a goose dog to haze any resident birds and establish the area as a predator’s domain. But about four years ago the geese overran the grounds, says Peter Palacios Jr., the new general manager of the course. Matt Golino, the master gardener, was forced to call in a goose mitigator to deal with the problem. It seems to have proven effective: the grounds haven’t seen many geese of late.   

A whole industry has grown up in the shade of coyote decoys. Among the local specialists, there’s Geese Peace, Geese Relief, No Geese Today, Connecticut Goose Solutions, Wild Goose Chase New England, and The Gooseman Cometh. Goose mitigation strategies include an arsenal of devices that could arm a small militia: chemical agent repellants, pyrotechnics and propane cannons, lasers, plastic-coated kevlar grid lines, mylar tape, automatic exploding cannons, motion sprinklers, barrier fencing, and trained goose dogs. 

Harassment by dog is the industry standard, and the standard dog is the border collie. Geese Relief’s Chris Santopietro told me that the bias for the breed can be attributed to its instinct to “herd, not hurt.” Santopietro uses traditional sheepherding commands to direct the dogs, first having them stare the geese down. “The stare mesmerizes the geese and they start to move,” he said––they retreat but don’t leave. Then the dogs set off in pursuit. With repetition, the geese eventually capitulate, coming to accept that the area isn’t theirs, and they move on. 

One morning in October, I accompanied Santopietro on a chase at a cemetery in New Canaan, CT. We met at the entrance––two huge stone pillars and swinging metal gates, worn from many passages to and fro. We were headed for the lake at the heart of the cemetery. A flock of geese had set up on its banks and when we arrived on the scene, I understood why. The place was a goose’s paradise––expansive fields to graze, a pond full of shoots and stems, a forbidden feast for the taking. 

Seeing us, the geese inched toward the water. Santopietro took a few minutes to survey the flock’s movements to make sure it had no injured members in its midst. His dogs typically don’t touch the geese, but there’s always the chance that an injured or sick bird, slow to flee, might get caught in the heat of herding. Satisfied that the flock was healthy, Santopietro opened the back of his truck and unlatched a dog crate. Out bounded Chip, a black and white border collie with a rough coat and an intensity that could cut diamond. Immediately the geese flew to the lake, all the while honking and hrinking, the female goose’s call. Santopietro barked the sheepherding commands––“Lay down, Chip!” meaning “get low to the ground and slow down”––and the operation began. Chip approached the lake on a crawl, one deliberate paw at a time, locking eyes with the flock. Santopietro called out the next round of commands––“Walk up! Right there!”––and Chip sprinted to the edge of the lake. After several laps around, Santopietro issued the final phrase––“Get in!”––and Chip dove into the water. The geese flew off into the sky––dozens marshalling themselves into a “V”––and disappeared beyond some clouds. Chip strolled back to us, looked for a clear patch of dirt, and, finding one, wiggled around there until he was dry. The chase was over.     

***

Geese can’t be chased into oblivion, but they can certainly be shuffled around and made someone else’s problem. Thirty years ago in The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik described a similar kind of transient peace with rats in New York City. The technique’s three commandments were to contain them, confine them, and convince them to leave. The goal with both rats and geese is to get them to go––where to isn’t the point.  

No one has sympathy for rats, but plenty do for geese. The ancients didn’t question their nobility. In Rome, geese were considered sacred to Juno and kept in domestic supply for rituals. When the Gauls invaded the city in 390 BC at the Battle of Allia, the Roman historian Livy credits the geese who sounded the alarms with saving the republic. Nowadays, the defenders of geese again say these are birds of principle: they mate for life, look after their young, and care for their sick. They’ve adjusted to an environment engineered by humans and have become one of its facts. Earlier this year in the New Haven Register, Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals, an international animal advocacy organization based in Darien, CT, proposed a way to coexist with resident geese: “[Canada geese] aren’t going away…the only thing to do is clean up after them.” Feral cites successful cleanup programs in Ottawa and Boston as alternatives to harassment, roundups, egg treatment, organized slaughter––even anti-goose vigilantism. 

New Haven County is no stranger to acts of anti-goose vigilante justice. In the last ten years, the county’s seen a string of road rage episodes targeting geese. In 2017, a driver deliberately hit and killed 13 geese in Waterbury; in 2018, a man plowed through a “multitude” of geese, killing a gosling; and in 2010, a beloved resident goose in Meriden named Buddy was killed and a letter of intent left at the scene. The town raised a $2,000 reward for the killer’s capture. The goose problem has all the trappings of war––its own bellicose sides, peace activists, and casualties––and bespeaks a temper in American life that, from time to time, explodes. Short of training resident geese to resume their migratory routes––a method proven successful in the late 1980s and early ‘90s––we’ll have to accept the goose’s year-round permanence in the national landscape: They’re with us now, and they like it here. These birds have an urge for staying.

***

Perhaps one day, with a serious effort to reestablish migratory routes, millions more will be flying north and south, but for now on Chapel Street, the only Canada goose you’ll see migrating is a thousand-dollar parka. For the moment, the appearance and disappearance of flocks of these down coats mark the change of seasons more than geese in chevron formation. But should you ever be in the right place to see 500 geese take wing from the ground, Connecticut Goose Solutions’ Jamie North, a veteran chaser, has one word of advice: “Duck.”       

—Zachary Groz is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College and an Associate Editor.

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