What’s Up With All The Geese In Chicago?

Maybe you find them annoying or maybe not, but one thing is certain: Chicago’s got a lot of them. So we’re taking on your geese questions.

Female goose defends her nest
A female goose defends a nest during nest management activities. Ryan Askren / University of Illinois
Female goose defends her nest
A female goose defends a nest during nest management activities. Ryan Askren / University of Illinois

What’s Up With All The Geese In Chicago?

Maybe you find them annoying or maybe not, but one thing is certain: Chicago’s got a lot of them. So we’re taking on your geese questions.

As part of her pandemic routine, Victoria Long has been taking brisk daily walks around Washington Park. And she’s noticed a growing group of fellow park lovers crowding into the area: Canada geese.

“They have overridden both the north and south ends of Washington Park and, from what I hear, other parks in the city,” she said recently, pointing as we strolled through the goose-packed park on the South Side.

So she asked Curious City: Is there any plan to manage the number of geese in Chicago?

Her question echoes similar ones Curious City has gotten about Canada geese over the years, asking why there are so many geese and whether or not they can be hunted and eaten. So this week, we consult top goose experts to get some answers and learn about the latest fascinating research on the birds.

So are all these Canada geese really a problem?

That depends on whom you ask, but agencies like the United States Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services note that geese do create problems in Chicago referred to as “conflicts.”

“These conflicts include threats to aviation safety, consumption of field crops, feeding upon golf course greens and lawns, and threats to public safety from attacks while they defend their nests or the accumulation of their droppings on lawns, athletic fields, and in parks,” according to USDA documents.

Goose poop on a shoe
Reporter Monica Eng stepped in a lot of goose poop on her walk around Washington Park with Victoria Long. Monica Eng / WBEZ

The threats to aviation can involve geese crashing into airplane engines. Mike Ward at the University of Illinois is conducting a multi-year study of Chicago geese, in part to help address the aviation dangers, like collisions, associated with geese.

“They’re rare but if they happen, they could be catastrophic,” Ward said.

A report by his research team noted that the “Geese are the largest bird commonly struck by aircraft in North America and were responsible for 1,403 recorded bird strikes to civil aircraft from 1990 to 2012 … Goose–aircraft strikes include the destruction of a $190 million U.S. Air Force aircraft, which resulted in 24 human deaths.”

All that goose poop can also be more than annoying. Geese can produce 1 to 3 pounds of poop a day, which can also contaminate waterways. Dried goose feces can also carry salmonella and E.coli that can become airborne when it dries out and make people sick, Ward notes.

Why are there so many geese in Chicago?

The geese like it here. Canada geese, which were nearly extinct in the 1960s, are now thriving in the Chicago area — and many other Midwestern cities — because cities like Chicago provide them with ponds for swimming, trimmed grass for grazing, few predators, hunting-free zones and plentiful food (like grass, garbage and sometimes feed from people).

Pedestrian feeding geese along lakefront
Sometimes people will feed geese that roam through Chicago’s parks and along the lakefront. Tae-Gyun Kim / AP

More of their young are also surviving because natural predators, like raccoons and coyotes, have found easier sources of food in the city.

“Raccoons here would rather eat your french fries now than try to hunt down a Canada goose,” Ward said.

Cook County also has almost no goose hunting — except at the William Powers Recreation Area in Hegewisch during waterfowl season.

And Chicago is becoming warmer, which means fewer bodies of water are freezing over. This is convincing more geese — on top of those who live here year round — to fly from Canada to Chicago and stay here for the winter. This is probably why Victoria has seen so many geese in her local park as the fall has turned to winter.

“There’s no question there’s more geese spending the winter here now,” Ward said. He theorizes that geese have essentially chosen to fatten up and stay in cold Chicago with less food (like field corn) rather than fly somewhere warmer and rural where they could be shot.

Geese huddle in Diversey Harbor during winter
A group of geese brave the cold in Diversey Harbor. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

What adaptations have geese developed to survive in Chicago?

Ward, the researcher, says the geese are extremely smart and adaptive, and they have learned all sorts of interesting tricks to survive in Chicago over the winter and beyond.

For example, Ward says there’s a train depot on the South Side where workers sweep grain out of cars after they are emptied, and the geese have figured out that this is a spot to go to for food.

Plus, he says geese have also discovered that some factory buildings have large, flat roofs that provide more warmth than being on the ground.

“A couple of years ago, when we had the polar vortex and it was like negative 30 or something out there, they [went] to the top of these roofs,” he said. “They hang out together and they make it through.”

Through his study of the geese, Ward’s team has also discovered they can communicate with one another about the best spots to go in the city.

“A bird that might have bred in Churchill, Manitoba, up in Hudson Bay, gets back to Chicago and within a day it knows where to go. It knows the best place to eat grass is Marquette Park,” said Ward. “And the best place to hang out when it’s cold is on top of this factory, on the South Side … Then when the weather gets really, really bad, they actually go on people’s rooftops or they go to the Cal-Sag Canal areas that don’t freeze up very much in winter.”

What methods can be used to control the geese populations?

Geese control methods are broken into five main categories: Harassment, exclusion, repellents, environmental alterations and lethal management.

Geese harassment
A USDA - APHIS - Wildlife Services personnel harasses geese in an urban park by approaching and clapping two boards together. Ryan Askren / University of Illinois

Residents, businesses, park districts and local government officials can use a combination of these tactics — including coyote decoys, fireworks, propane cannons, dogs, fences and chemical sprays — without having to get permits from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources or the USDA. More advanced control methods, including egg destruction, hunting and “charity harvests,” a method which involves rounding up live geese to be slaughtered, do require permits.

Chicago Park District spokesperson Michele Lemons said the department uses a technique called egg oiling to manage Canada geese populations along the lakefront parks. Essentially this involves destroying the eggs before they can hatch. This kind of program helps control population growth “by stabilizing the flock size,” she said.

“Egg oiling can also eliminate the cause of aggression towards humans in many geese as they try to protect their nest. Long term egg oiling results in decreased population levels as the breeding population declines due to attrition,” she wrote in an email to WBEZ. “Reports indicate that if 95 percent of the Canada goose eggs are prevented from hatching in an area, the population level may fall to 75 percent of its original size within 10 years.”

The Chicago Park District also plans and builds natural methods to manage geese in parks such as planting tall grass which breaks the line of sight for geese, increasing their fear of predators.

So do these methods work?

Canada geese with the Chicago skyline
Geese fly over Lake Michigan at Montrose Beach. Nam Y. Huh / AP

The USDA says various non-lethal techniques like harassment or repellants can be marginally effective in controlling goose populations, especially in small areas. But lethal methods often produce the most dramatic results in areas with large geese populations.

“Hunting helps to reduce the number of geese in an area, provides a strong repellent effect for the geese not taken, and re-enforces the use of other non-lethal techniques, such as pyrotechnics,” according to the USDA website. But hunting opportunities in Chicago are scant.

Charity harvests — the lethal method that involves Illinois Department of Natural Resources officials rounding up a certain number of geese and taking them to the slaughter house for processing — can also be quite effective when trying to reduce the number of geese in a given location. But it’s a method the IDNR only uses as a last resort when the problem is out of control.

“We need to reset the clock so that our non-lethal management can work,” said Ben Williams, a wildlife biologist at the IDNR. “It’s not ideal. We don’t like it to get to that point, but in certain cases it is on the table, I guess, as a management technique.”

And even though the processed goose meat gets donated to food banks, the technique remains controversial. Last summer geese supporters protested a charity harvest in downstate Urbana, Ill. Resident Ilir Sulejmani started a petition to urge the department to employ other tactics like egg oiling instead — but to no avail.

“Broadly speaking, the goose cull was unnecessary and unethical,” he wrote to WBEZ. “Though the Urbana Park District claimed that there was some kind of health problems associated with the geese, this is scientifically unsupported. In emails, they admitted that their true concern was not to spend money on a renovation project and not see more ‘customers’ to the park (their term) because of goose poop. As my petition expressed, nobody deserves to die just because they are an inconvenience to a business project.”

As for the future of the city’s geese population, Ward said he doesn’t see the numbers decreasing dramatically any time soon, but he believes the population may eventually reach a maximum “carrying capacity” when their numbers are so great that there just isn’t enough food for all the geese to survive. At that point, their numbers would level off and some would find another place to live.

Ward’s team is also working on finding more effective harassment methods based on energy use. These could include a technique such as harassing the birds on very cold days when it may not be worth their energy stores to stay in a place where they are constantly being chased.

And what about hunting and eating the geese?

People who want to hunt geese in Hegewisch (the only area in Cook County where it’s allowed) need to follow several rules and obtain specific permits and documents. Hunting is permitted in the William Powers State Recreation Area in Hegewisch from October to January.

According to Hank Shaw, hunter, chef and author of Duck Duck Goose, most beginning hunters will want to skin rather than pluck the goose, since plucking is very difficult.

The best cuts on a skinned Canada goose, he said, are the breast, leg and thigh quarters. Shaw recommends slow braising the quarters in a crockpot in their own fat and juices, “and essentially making [goose] barbacoa tacos.”

But the breast, which has no fat, requires fast cooking like a good steak.

“It’s very beefy,” Shaw said. “In fact, the best way to cook any kind of waterfowl is to think of them more as beef and less as birds. The breast meat of any goose or duck is going to be best eaten at medium rare but you can go as low as rare. But it needs to be cooked like your favorite steak.”

More about our question asker

Victoria Long, question asker
Victoria Long walks past a group of geese in Washington Park. Monica Eng / WBEZ

Victoria Long is a Hyde Park resident who, before retirement, was a communications consultant and directed a music education nonprofit affiliated with the University of Chicago. Today she loves walking in Washington Park with her husband because it recalls her childhood in Southern Minnesota.

“I grew up six blocks from Carleton College campus [in Northfield, MN] and that is why I have been enjoying walking on the south end of Washington Park so much,” she said. “It reminds me of the Carleton College campus with swinging bridges and islands. It was gorgeous and brings back lots of good memories.”

But, she says, it did not have nearly as many Canada geese.

And thanks to Joshua Sheridan, Lauren Ross and Joan Pikas for their questions about Canada geese.

Monica Eng is WBEZ’s Curious City reporter. Contact her at meng@wbez.org.