Cooked goose? Tensions run high in Berlin as city debates how to control bird population
Neveah Hart of Berlin loves taking pictures of the Canada geese in her city.
“They’re so beautiful! I literally call them my family,” she said, only half joking.
But these geese, loved by some, loathed by others, have now found themselves in the center of a fight. Berlin city councilors and wildlife experts say the city’s population of around 60 geese is becoming less healthy as it gorges on bread and chips, and poses a community health risk by defecating in public places where residents also gather.
At a city council meeting this week, councilors voted to spend up to $5,000 to take initial steps to reduce the population. Dozens of geese were euthanized in Berlin a few years ago, and some officials coalesced around a plan to replicate that approach.
But that idea was clipped when the city learned a few days later that capturing the birds this summer won’t be possible because the molting season has already ended.
When Canada geese molt, they shed all their feathers at once, leaving them briefly flightless. Berlin residents who opposed euthanizing the geese had planned a protest for Friday afternoon, but called it off upon learning the geese would be left unharmed this summer. They continue to push a virtual petition that has attracted over 350 signatures to implore the city to employ only non-lethal methods to reduce the population.
Mayor Paul Grenier is trying to cool tensions between the various groups.
“This is not a mass extermination,” he told NHPR in an interview.
He said the city is consulting with wildlife experts to create a long term plan to reduce the population, and will consider a variety of options. That could include an enforceable ordinance preventing people from feeding the birds, growing certain grasses that make the habitat less friendly to geese, or scaring the birds with trained dogs or other loud noises.
But Grenier is clear that the health and safety of Berlin residents must come before the geese, and said some birds could “be taken out.”
Wildlife experts say the accumulation of fecal matter in public places can present a health risk because of the bacteria and parasites it carries. Grenier is especially worried about the city's goose-poop-ridden sports fields.
“We're getting ready for the soccer program,” he said. “And the kids are going to be running through poop. That's not fair to the kids.”
But concerns of bird flu spreading to humans may be getting overblown by some.
“It is not highly contagious to people,” said Carrie Stengel, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services in New Hampshire. Stengel said the bigger concern is that the virus can spread to other birds, including domestic chickens.
Stengel said that a contagious (to other birds) strain of the avian flu was found in some New Hampshire birds earlier this year.
Why Berlin’s geese are considered “residents” by wildlife experts
Berlin geese have taken to the fields of local farmer Dan Landry, eating his corn and leaving behind bird waste. They also don’t give Landry much of a break, even in the winter.
“I'm cross-country skiing my field and they're standing there in the snow,” Landry said at the Monday council meeting.
Berlin’s geese population is considered a “resident” population according to Jessica Carloni, the waterfowl project leader with New Hampshire Fish and Game Department. She said resident geese don’t follow the typical migratory patterns of other Canada geese by heading far south in the winter and nesting in Canada. In the case of Berlin’s geese, they nest in the city, and travel only marginally to nearby Massachusetts during the very coldest weeks.
While humans did cause the geese to become “residents” Carloni said it’s not because people in Berlin feed them. These resident geese are in fact the descendants of captive geese used by waterfowl hunters in the 1900s. The captive geese were used as decoys to lure in other geese, but that practice was outlawed in 1935. The captive birds were then released into the wild and nested in places like Berlin, where they continue to reside year after year.
The city of Berlin is not unique in its challenges with goose management, said Carloni. From sprawling factory properties to a Winnipesaukee wedding venue, Carloni said New Hampshire wildlife experts have worked with a variety of Granite Staters on the problem.
“We have to learn to live with wildlife. And there's a delicate balance to please everybody,” she said.