Researchers: Tracking Sioux Falls geese is 'organized chaos'

In this Thursday, June 20, photo Jess Speiser, wildlife technician, hands a goose to Pat Hybertson while conducting population research in Sioux Falls. (Erin Bormett/The Argus Leader via AP)

SIOUX FALLS (AP) – Researchers with the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department are no strangers to managing the chaos of honking, kicking and flapping when catching a flock of Canadian geese.

That commotion was found at several parks in Sioux Falls on June 20, when a team met to perform the annual task of affixing identification bands to the legs of the local birds as a way to track their population numbers, hunting survival rates and migration habits.

Each shiny metal band has a unique identification number etched into it, categorized by sex and age. Researchers can follow migration patterns by recording the locations where geese with specific band numbers have been spotted. From there, biologists can make decisions on how to effectively manage local populations.

Waiting for reports of leg band sightings is the easy part. Before that, nearly a dozen researchers and volunteers have to successfully herd, contain, band and release anywhere from 200-400 geese in the Sioux Falls metro area, and roughly 1,500 statewide.

"It's organized chaos, is the best way to put it," said Rocco Murano, senior waterfowl biologist. "The geese definitely have a mind of their own . . . some of the geese have been banded before. They kind of lead the crew, and they know what's going on. And it can be interesting trying to persuade them to do the same thing again."

The team has a specific strategy for corralling geese. Mature Canada geese simultaneously molt their primary flight feathers during a three-week period each summer in order to grow new ones. Unable to fly during this time, it is a prime opportunity for catching the birds with ease.

Three volunteers kayaked slowly toward an unsuspecting flock in the water, causing the birds to swim away from them and closer to a chain link cage waiting on the shore. More people started walking alongside the flock from land, deterring any rogue birds from making a run for it up the bank.

"If they're on land, they can easily outrun you, and they're gone," Murano told the Argus Leader. "So we keep them on the water, keep them going the right direction and keep them calm."

As the kayaks pushed farther, eventually the geese had no choice but to run up the shore and into the cage. Once the fencing was pulled shut to prevent any escapes, birds were handed one-by-one to ready biologists with a stack of leg bands and a set of pliers to fit the metal to the goose's leg.

"The banding project is spearheaded by the Game, Fish and Parks Department, and it's great to have their assistance and expertise," said Julie DeJong, Sioux Falls Animal Control supervisor.

The two organizations have partnered in this effort for years.

"Most of our animal control officers deal with domestic animals, so to have wildlife experts at our disposal is a great addition," she said.

Sioux Falls has been dealing with significant problems due to both "resident" geese – geese that live in the city year-round – and visiting populations. The Big Sioux River is one of the few open water sources that doesn't freeze over, so flocks from neighboring states congregate in the city for the winter. The "resident" Sioux Falls goose population of roughly 1,000, according to DeJong, grows to 7,000 or 8,000.

While DeJong said the frequency of calls regarding aggressive geese has dropped significantly after management strategies were implemented, members of both Animal Control and the Game, Fish and Parks Department agree that the biggest worry about these overwhelming population sizes is focused at the airport.

"The major concern is when they set down and fly over the airport," DeJong said. "A Canada goose getting in a plane's engine can be a fatal situation."

Animal Control hazes geese that nest near the airport in an attempt to relocate them. Officers drill small holes in some of the flock's eggs in order to keep population numbers down. The Game, Fish and Parks Department has even adjusted goose hunting season in Sioux Falls to end later than the rest of the state in order to remove more of the visiting geese arriving for winter.

Leg banding allows researchers to track the effectiveness of these methods. Over time, they can see if efforts to move flocks away from the airport are successful, or if migration patterns ever start to move away from Sioux Falls.

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