Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Laura in the New York Times

Oh, my--I made today's New York Times! And what about? Goose poop.

One of the weird quirks of my life right now is that I keep getting interviewed by the press about all kinds of issues. Martha Stewart Living called me a few weeks ago about hummingbird feeders. USA Today called me about binoculars. I’m often interviewed by the Duluth News-Tribune, so last week’s call about kingbirds nesting in a Park Point Yacht Club boat wasn’t unexpected. But it WAS unexpected to get a call from the New York Times the same day, about goose poop. Their questions editor had been asked whether some kids should worry about geese pooping as they flew over them.

Goose poop is, of course, a hot topic in some circles, whether Fox News is exaggerating about the quantity of it, or whether it’s being blamed for botulism outbreaks at public beaches. I’ve been searching but have been unable to find well-documented primary sources quantifying goose output—putting together what I can find, a large, well-fed goose can produce somewhere between a half a pound and four pounds a day, but at least half of that is nothing more than the indigestible cell walls of grass—slippery but innocuous. Goose guts do, indeed, harbor E. coli, but so do our guts and those of dogs and cats. And the guts of us meat-eaters are far more laden with harmful bacteria than those of vegetarian geese.

Geese usually poop upon takeoff, and they usually take off in the direction away from people, so we’re not likely to be pooped upon by geese making short, local flights. On long journeys, geese of course must occasionally poop in flight, but their forward momentum and altitude pretty much guarantee that it will have atomized before reaching us. I have long kept a list of birds in the wild that have pooped on me. My list includes Pileated Woodpecker and Ruby-throated Hummingbird, but nary a goose, and it’s not like I haven’t spent a lot of time in goose habitat where I’ve been rather a sitting duck, so to speak.

Of course when any animal population gets out of kilter, it’s going to cause problems, for humans and for other wildlife. Geese are wonderful birds, but we subsidize them whenever we cut down natural vegetation and put in lawns. A lawn that reaches all the way to the water’s edge on river or lakefront property is like holding out a huge welcome sign for them. Geese are among the very few birds that can digest grasses, and manicured lawns provide them with both food and safety so they can maximize reproduction and minimize mortality. Unless and until we start maintaining longer, more natural vegetation around our homes and parks, geese will continue to increase and multiply until a natural scourge reduces their numbers.  People often disdain the wildlife that adapts to us without considering that the wildlife that remains genuinely wild, dependent upon genuinely wild habitat, is doomed unless we work hard to protect that habitat. As our population continues to grow, and as more and more Americans flee cities and urbanize or suburbanize more and more natural habitat, there are fewer and fewer places for genuinely wild animals and plants to live. If we are truly committed to preserving wildlife, either for its own sake or because the Old Testament God was so very clear to Noah that he must save every species, we should be providing natural habitats even within our settled areas. That would not only help many creatures that need our help but be a natural way of controlling the goose population. Goose poop isn’t a genuine problem, but their overpopulation, and OUR overpopulation, is.