There's no denying that Canada geese are handsome birds, or that their goslings have the aaah factor, but they are now considered a pest in the UK and, as such, may be culled with the appropriate licence. But just what does this bird get up to that so annoys humans and how can they be controlled?
Writing in the Daily Mail back in 2008, columnist Robert Hardman wrote; "Should there ever be a prize for Britain's most hated bird, then, surely, it would go to the Canada goose. If Canada geese were human, they would be lounging around all day doing nothing, claiming every welfare benefit in the book, driving their neighbours out of town and notching up ASBOs around the clock."
So, a fairly typical 'Mail' editorial then, but not far off the truth, if we indeed need to put a human slant on this rather obnoxious member of the goose family.
As its name implies, it is a North American species that has found its way across to Europe either via introduction or migration. Whilst the North American variety tends to continue to migrate (as do most other species of geese), European Canada geese are generally happy with their lot and stay put, pooing for a pastime and with amazing regularity.
Similarly, the species was introduced into New Zealand where they are now considered a pest, to the point where the Government removed their protected species status in 2011, allowing anyone to kill them.
Canada geese are one of the largest of all geese. There are considered to be seven sub species - Atlantic, Interior, Giant, Moffit's Vancouver, Lesser and Dusky - although their habit of mating with anything resembling a goose can sometimes make for difficult classification. That said, they are monogamous and all true sub species are instantly recognisable for their black neck and head with striking white cheeks, dark brown back, light brown breast and a white rump.
They are noisy, gregarious birds that always live near water and, therefore, can often be found around ornamental ponds, lakes and water features on golf courses and in amenity parks. Whilst they are herbivorous grazers, with grass and aquatic plants being their natural food source, they will eat almost anything, including ice cream, chocolate, chips or anything else that is 'to hand'. Manicured lawns are a particular favourite, perhaps because of the richness of the grass plant.
The practice of hounding humans for food is perhaps their most annoying trait (other than pooing) and their aggressive nature can be quite frightening, especially for young children.
The largest of the sub species has a wing span of close to two metres (185cm/73"), but even the smaller varieties have a wing span of 130cm (51"). Average weight is 4kg (over half a stone), so they are fearsome adversaries.
Numbers have quadrupled in the past fifty years, and the RSPB report 62,000 breeding pairs, with numbers swelling to 190,000 due to the influx of over-wintering visitors. Compare that to the similar sized Mute swan with c7,000 breeding pairs.
As their numbers have risen so their habitat has changed, and it is now common to see these birds in car parks, industrial estates and other urban areas, and they are happy to nest anywhere that is raised off the ground a short height, such as pallets, bricks, rockeries etc.
Canada geese have one brood a year, averaging five, but often double that. The incubation period, in which the female sits on the eggs whilst the male remains nearby, lasts for up to twenty-eight days after laying. The offspring enter the fledgling stage at any time from six to nine weeks of age. The annual summer moult also takes place during the breeding season; the adults losing their flight feathers for up to forty days and regaining their flight at about the same time as their goslings begin to fly.
During this flightless period they will often form creches and become fiercely protective. Their primary aim is to ward off anything that comes close to their offspring - whether that be a pigeon or a human - with 'kill' as the bottom line! This will include first year adults and other goose species. First, the geese stand erect, spread their wings, and produce a hissing sound. Next, they charge. They may then bite or attack with their wings.
It is believed that the over-wintering birds have a higher testosterone level than resident birds due to the effort required in migration and this makes them even more aggressive.
As well as aggressive and obnoxious behaviour, one of the biggest areas of concern surrounds their excrement, which carries a wide variety of bacteria that can cause serious illness, including gastroenteritis.
Canada geese eat around 4lb of food daily, and half that amount is returned to the ground as poo. It looks more like the faeces of a small dog rather than typical bird droppings. In addition to being disgusting, the waste has been known to carry such disease-causing organisms as E. coli and salmonella. Since youngsters tend to climb, run and explore when they are playing outside, they might unknowingly come into contact with the birds' excrement, touch their mouths or rub their eyes and, therefore, develop an infection.
Dogs too, seem to enjoy a good old roll-around in goose poo. If this happens, the dog should be washed off thoroughly, taking care that you also wash your hands thoroughly.
The droppings will also kill grass, much in the same way that worm casts do.
Whilst the goslings are undeniably 'cute', it is during the flightless period that any culling should take place. This can only be done with the appropriate licence issued by Natural England; see boxed items for full details.
In 2009, a collision with a flock of Canada geese resulted in US Airways Flight 1549 suffering a total power loss after take-off. The pilot brought the plane to an emergency 'splash-landing' in the Hudson River, causing only minor injuries.
So there you have it; lovely to look at, but perhaps not the best visitor to have come calling!
The control of Canada Geese:
You can only use the following methods to control wild bird populations if you hold the relevant licence.
If you don't have a licence, contact Natural England for advice.
Use mineral oil to prevent eggs hatching
You can stop the eggs of problem Canada geese from hatching using mineral oil (e.g. paraffin oil). Completely cover the eggs with mineral oil shortly after the eggs have been laid and return them to the nest.
Where birds are nesting as part of a colony, regularly search for eggs to treat during the nesting period.
Round-up and cull geese
Problem geese can be controlled by rounding up and culling whilst they're moulting. As the birds can't fly at this time, you can catch them by constructing a pen and a funnel and moving the birds towards it.
When to cull
You should cull geese shortly after they've moulted their main wing feathers as they'll be unable to fly for three to four weeks.
This usually occurs between the end of May and the end of June.
Where to cull
Geese usually choose to moult near water. You can identify moult sites as there will normally be a large number of feathers found at the water's edge or on nearby land.
Shortly before you carry out the cull, you should visit the site to check that the birds aren't able to fly.
Prepare the funnel and holding pen
You should place the funnel and pen at a location which is regularly used by the geese to enter and exit the water. If possible, set up the funnel and pen at least a day before the cull is due to take place, so that the birds can get used to it.
Use wire mesh and stakes to create the two arms of the funnel. These should run from the water's edge to the entrance of the holding pen.
You should build the holding pen at the end of the arms of the funnel. It should be large enough to hold the size of the expected catch. Cover the outside of the pen with sacking or similar material so that the birds won't be alarmed by human presence when they're inside the pen.
Catch the geese
Rounding-up the geese should take place at first light, although several catches can take place at different sites throughout the day.
You'll need at least six people for a small catch. Split your team so that you have some:
- in canoes on the water
- on the banks around the edge of the water to stop the geese escaping
The canoeists should circle behind the geese and move them gently and steadily towards the funnel and the entrance to the pen.
Once you've moved the geese out of the water and towards the entrance of the pen, the canoeists and those on the banks should be positioned at the water's edge, along the width of the funnel. Continue to move the birds into the pen and close the gate once they are inside.
Leave the birds alone for a while to allow them to calm down. This will help prevent unnecessary suffering as the geese are protected by the Animal Welfare Act 2006 once they're held within the pen.
Cull the geese
To avoid unnecessarily distressing the birds:
- don't enter the pen
- deal with young birds first as they're vulnerable to being trampled
- individually remove birds from the pen and kill them quickly and humanely, out of sight from the other birds
Under your licence you can kill the birds by:
- using a geese dispatcher
- shooting them, if you take all necessary precautions before using a firearm
You'll need an additional licence if you decide to kill the birds by lethal injection. Contact Natural England for more information.
You must dispose of the carcasses responsibly. Contact your local council if you need further advice.
For further advice, or to report the action that you've taken under your licence, contact Natural England's wildlife licensing unit:
Wildlife Licensing Unit
Temple Quay House
2 The Square
Telephone: 0300 060 3900
Getting a general licence:
As a land owner or other authorised person to catch alive or kill certain wild birds to prevent serious damage or disease (licence GL04).
If you're a land owner, occupier or other authorised person, you can use this general licence to carry out a range of otherwise prohibited activities against certain wild birds. You don't need to apply for this general licence but you must meet its conditions and follow its instructions.
You are an authorised person if you're:
- the land owner, occupier or anyone authorised by the owner or occupier
- authorised in writing by the local authority
- authorised in writing by any England, Scotland or Wales conservation body, a district board for fisheries or local fisheries committee
- authorised in writing by the Environment Agency, a water undertaker or a sewerage undertaker
When you can use this licence
You can only use this licence to prevent serious damage to:
- foodstuffs for livestock
- crops, vegetables and fruit
- growing timber
- fisheries or inland waters
You can also use it to stop the spread of disease.
You can't use this licence to kill birds because they are damaging your property, such as your car or house, or if they're a nuisance.
Birds you can catch alive or kill with this licence
With this licence you can catch alive or kill:
- collared doves
- lesser black-backed gulls
- pigeons (feral and wood pigeon)
You can catch alive or kill, as well as take, damage or destroy the nests, or take or destroy the eggs:
- Canada geese
- Egyptian geese
- monk parakeets
- ring-necked parakeets
You must still follow animal welfare laws and kill birds in a quick and humane manner.
You can eat birds killed under this licence, but you can't sell any for human consumption, other than wood pigeons.
How you can catch alive or kill wild birds
In addition to other legal methods, this licence lets you use a:
- semi-automatic weapon
- cage trap that doesn't meet the size requirements of the Wildlife and Countryside Act
- hand-held or hand-propelled net to take birds not in flight
For feral pigeons only, you can also use:
- a device to illuminate a target
- sighting devices for night shooting
- mirrors, lighting or other dazzling devices
If you use a cage trap, you can only use the following decoy birds:
- monk parakeets
- ring-necked parakeets