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Fall 2010

Urban Jungle

The changing natural world at our doorsteps | Illustration and text by Patterson Clark      

December 21, 2010

About that Christmas goose . . .

An explosive population becomes an abundant harvest

Winter hunting season is underway for resident Canada geese, abundant, non-native waterfowl that linger year-round in the Washington area.

"For the love of all that is holy, please eat them," blogs Jackson Landers, a Virginia hunting instructor, author and guide who promotes harvesting invasive species for food. Resident Canada geese "represent a tremendous amount of underutilized food," he writes.

The big geese are originally from the Midwest but were shipped to the East Coast in the early 1900s by hunters, who tethered them to the ground as lures for smaller migratory geese.

"That ended in 1935, when it became illegal to use live decoys," says Larry Hindman of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. The decoy birds were released and soon began their population explosion, grazing on and fouling golf courses and suburban lawns, and damaging turf farms and agricultural fields.

To help control a population that is twice as large as wildlife managers would prefer, government agencies have adopted more-liberal hunting guidelines. As a result, the resident goose population has been steadily decreasing in rural areas but continues to increase where hunting is not an option.

Anyone on the hunt for geese, whether by bow and arrow, shotgun or even their bare hands, must first attend hunter safety classes and get a hunting license. Buying a killed Canada goose is not an option: Unless it comes from a licensed breeder, the sale of waterfowl is illegal.

Urban geese are relatively safe from hunters unless they threaten to collide with aircraft. That's when the feds step in and transform a hazard into a harvest. The Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services program donates goose carcasses "to food banks, large animal rescue/rehabilitation groups and zoos," says the USDA's Michael Begier.

Resident Canada Goose.

In 2009, the USDA donated more than a ton of goose flesh in the Maryland-Delaware-Washington area, says the USDA's Carol Bannerman. One recipient, the Maryland Food Bank, distributed 325 pounds of ground goose and goose chubs (stew meat) to food pantries and food kitchens across the state.

"It's a wonderful resource for protein," says the food bank's Nancy Smith. "We are absolutely thrilled. Not many people donate protein."

Demand is high. "This is the first time in 32 years that we've seen middle-class families using food pantries," she says. Goose meat "flies off the shelves as soon as it's available."

Some people find goose donations unpalatable. Sharon Pawlak, for the Coalition to Prevent the Destruction of Canada Geese, says, "Donating goose meat to food pantries is nothing more than a public relations ploy to justify the cruel and unnecessary slaughter of so-called nuisance geese." She also has concerns about feeding potentially toxic meat to people who tend to suffer more health problems than other groups.

Eating a goose can pose a health hazard if the bird has been dabbling in polluted waters. Waterfowl can accumulate heavy metals and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), especially in their fat.

Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources recommends eating no more than a half-pound of urban goose per week: "The geese must be trimmed of all fat, either baked or broiled, and no drippings should be used in sauces." That preparation, the department says, should remove 50 to 80 percent of fat-soluble contaminants.

Before releasing goose meat, the USDA tests it for toxins. "The meat is often distributed widely so that no one family or location would be reliant on this meat," says Bannerman.

Donated geese are hard to find in the District. "We do get deer meat," says Samia Holloway of the Capital Area Food Bank, "but geese, no."

The same goes for Northern Virginia's Food for Others. The only wild game handed out there is venison, supplied by Hunters for the Hungry, headquartered in Big Island, Va.

Hunters for the Hungry doesn't deal with many geese. "The problem," spokesman Gary Arrington says, "is finding processors for the birds. It's just not cost-effective." But if they do hear of a farmer or golf course with a permit to eliminate a flock, they recommend direct donations to soup kitchens, churches or food pantries that are able to prepare a few freshly killed birds.

"Killing an animal is always a sad thing," says harvesting advocate Landers, "but eating it at least gives the act some real point and meaning."

Sources: Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries