CHRONICLE: The Mysterious Origin of Canada Geese Breeding in the Willamette Valley

Local birder and natural history author Harry Fuller shares what birds do in the Salem area in his “Some Fascinating Things About Birds” column.

A family of Canada geese in the parking lot of Lowe’s in Salem (Harry Fuller/Special to Salem Reporter)

The common name “Canada goose” is directly linked to the Latin scientific binomial Branta canadensis. Both are geographically inaccurate like the Nashville warbler, Philadelphia vireo, or California quail (found in six states and three nations). The Canada goose breeds in North America, from Alaska to Maine and Nova Scotia. Some overwinter in places from California to Mexico to Florida.

In fall and winter, Canada Geese of several subspecies and their smaller cousin the Cackling Goose arrive in the Willamette Valley. Many stay, then return north in the spring. Our National Wildlife Refuges can house tens of thousands at a time in season, from the Tualatin River in the north, to Baskett Slough, Ankeny and south to Finley. This cold weather population has been gathering in this valley for centuries.

But something different is happening around us: the large pale-breasted Canada geese we now see in fields, swamps, golf courses and park lawns, those that breed here, those that try to raising goslings right now. It’s quite new. The 1940 book “Birds of Oregon” clearly stated that Canada Geese nest only is waterfalls.

It is unclear how, when, and why our species introduced these resident geese here. No one publicly admits credit or blame for today’s resident geese. I found an essay on a show called “Mother Goose” from the late 1960s. It was the introduction of Canada geese to the Columbia Gorge and out west.

The 2006 “Birds of Oregon” states: “Many poorly documented and undocumented releases of Canada geese have been made in the western states from private captive herds (former decoy herds)…Some of these birds of of mixed origin have become semi-wild”. “The geese, which when they became a nuisance were ‘managed’ by transplanting them to other locations. Many resident populations in western Oregon evolved from transplant operations.”

I spoke with Brandon Reishus, migratory game bird coordinator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. Their records show that nesting counts of geese were made in Jackson County in the late 1960s, and then similar counts in the Umpqua watershed around 1980. No records from Willamette. He points out that the geese may have spread without much direct help. Post-World War II agricultural practices spread goose forage to the valley. Dams on the Upper Columbia now prevent spring flooding, making the islands (like Sauvie) perfect for spring-nesting geese.

Resident geese are threatened by avian flu. Infected geese have been found in Salem. Reishus says this year’s flu variant has so far not killed wild birds often. In the future, it will likely be our species that will determine the fate of Canada geese. Foster City, California is considering a cull of geese – it appears their droppings (largely digested lawn grass) are unacceptable.

For more information on upcoming Salem Audubon programs and activities, visit www.salemaudubon.org or the Salem Audubon Facebook page.

Harry Fuller is an ornithologist from Oregon and the natural history author of “Freeway Birding.” He is a member of the Salem Audubon Society. Contact him at [email protected] Where atowhee.blog. His “Some Fascinating Things About Birds” column appears regularly in Salem Reporter.

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