DEM’s Canada Goose Roundup


Handing a goose to biologist Jenny Kilburn for tagging.

It’s a warm June morning as a flotilla of five kayakers makes its way to a pond in Tiverton. They fan out across the diameter and quietly approach a small island. As they approach, a flock of Canada geese break off from their breakfast of sea grass and nervously begin to stir. The guardians stretch their long necks up, trying to assess the situation, making low sounds to each other as the humans draw near. They’re especially nervous these days, as they have lost their flight feathers in an annual molt. On the shore, a spotter uses binoculars to monitor the flock’s movements, and he gives maneuvering orders to the crew via walkie talkie.

First batch of about 60 Canada Geese penned up.

The flock has drawn itself into a tight ball for protection, and they’re not happy about the meal interruption. The kayakers paddle hard to make course corrections so that they can drive as many geese as possible towards the shore. Occasionally a few break free from the group and try to make a run for it, forcing one or more of the crew to paddle furiously to keep the strays from getting far. It’s a quieter version of a cattle roundup, minus the cowboy hats and dust.

Banding, not branding
RIDEM’s Fish and Wildlife repeats this scene across the state roughly ten days a year in order to place bands on Canada geese. It’s a process that’s been going on with various Rhode Island birds since the 1950’s, according to Jay Osenkowski, Deputy Chief of Wildlife. DEM coordinates the banding operation with the US Geologic Survey Bird Banding Laboratory (BBL), which supplies the aluminum bands placed on the leg of the geese and acts as a database for both local and national banding efforts. (Note: the BBL web site contains much information about bird banding programs, and is accessible to the public  here .)

Two team members work inside the pen to grab geese and hand them off.

Osenkowski says that most DEM banding is done on game birds, as opposed to “passerines”, or song birds. When a hunter shoots a goose with a band on it, they usually report information about where and when the bird was shot. That information is cross checked with the original banding record, and the data collected provides information on the birds’ productivity, movements, and how many are being harvested. That, in turn, will influence bag limits for future hunting seasons.

Wrestling and Recording
The kayak crew makes small adjustments to their paddling as the flock nears the shore. On land, a collapsible pen has been set up, open wide on one side to receive the visitors. Staff members and volunteers hide themselves in the phragmite (tall marsh grass) as the birds get close, to prevent a last-minute panic. Suddenly, over sixty bodies surge onto the shore and into the pen, pushing and shoving with enough force to make the back end of the fencing sag with the weight. They climb over one another with much flapping of the large wings that are temporarily unable to help them escape. Two crew members quickly close the gate and the flock is trapped.

In minutes, the tagging equipment is brought down the narrow path to the pen, and a system is quickly established. Two people squeeze into the burbling mass of birds in the pen. They approach them cautiously, then pin one to the ground. They quickly wrap their fingers through the bird’s shoulder blades and grab the neck with their pinky fingers. The trick is to make this into one fluid movement, handing the bird off to a tagger outside the pen before the bird has a chance to balk.

This is an animal that weighs in at three to ten pounds, stands roughly three feet tall, and has a wingspan of about five feet. They also have nails at the ends of their webbed feet, and they will kick (and scratch) rapidly to escape. As one biologist had the misfortune to find out (twice!), their beaks, though rounded, are capable inflicting a painful bite. Thus, the banding process is one that is administered carefully, for the protection of both bird and biologist.

Once the bird is handed off from the pen to the tagger, the tagger turns the bird upside down and sits on a camp stool, pinning the wings between their legs. The animal is sexed, and an aluminum band is carefully placed around one leg.

Carefully closing the band.

Each band has a code which the tagger reads off to another helper who records the sex, number, and whether the bird is an adult or juvenile in a notebook. The tags are specially designed to fit the geese without causing them any difficulty, and the taggers squeeze the bands into place with the skill of a jeweler. Finally, the bird is turned right side up and released, paddling away with an indignant hiss.

Three hours later, the last goose in the pen is released, with 60 birds coming from this one location. The crew is dirty, sweaty, and sporting lots of tiny feathers that have stuck to them. They’ll grab some much-needed water and lunch, then will move on to one or two other spots and start the process all over again.




The goose, sporting its new bling, makes a quick exit.

The season when the birds are molting (and thus unable to fly off) lasts for some ten days, and perhaps a thousand birds will be banded in Rhode Island alone. It makes for a tight schedule.








(Hugh Markey is a freelance writer, naturalist, and educator living in Richmond. Read more of his natural history stories on his blog, “Science and Nature for a Pie” at . Follow him on Facebook here. )



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