Learning to Like Canada Geese

Hm 500mm_0088 (002)-editThey look majestic, winging across the sky in aerodynamic V-formations. In the late 17th century, King Charles II introduced Canada geese to Britain in the London ponds of St. James’s Park. In the 1950s, Green Spring owner Michael Straight introduced them to his ponds in Alexandria, Va.

The king’s exotic Canada geese, part of his beloved ornamental waterfowl collection, turned out to be a royal nuisance. Michael Straight’s gaggle and their descendants at Green Spring Gardens have become, in the eyes of some county residents, an irritating legacy. Love them or hate them, Canada geese are here to stay.

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Canada geese at Green Spring Gardens. Photo credit: Rachel Gomez

The Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources classifies resident (non-migratory) geese as “nuisance and problem wildlife.” We all know why. With a diet of primarily grass and aquatic plants, they thrive on our lawns, golf courses, soccer fields, and in our parks and ponds. The result is messy droppings everywhere which, along with overgrazing, can cause landscape damage, pond erosion, and poor water quality. They also have a nasty reputation for terrorizing people. However,  don’t blame the geese for being here. We invited them.

In the early 20th century, Canada goose populations in North America were decimated by hunting and habitat loss. Their comeback is due to a highly successful wildlife protection program that was active from the mid-1950s to the 1980s. It bred the birds in captivity and reintroduced them to areas where numbers were dwindling. In 1970, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published Homegrown Honkers, a handy guide to raising backyard geese.

Against this backdrop, it’s surprising that Michael Straight got into a spot of trouble in the 1960s for raising geese.

Ilex 'Scarlett O' Hara' geese 3-8-07 3rd (002)

Canada geese outside the Historic Green Spring manor house.

In his 2004 memoir “On Green Spring Farm,” Straight wrote: “For some years, I’ve tried to make a bird sanctuary out of my Virginia farm. I’ve taken special pride in my flock of Canada geese.” He fondly described them as “celebrities in Fairfax County.” He also noted, “They caused several accidents as they flew around in formation, a hundred feet above our highways.” At the time, the honk of a goose in Virginia was a novelty.

Michael and longtime property caretaker John Quast dug out the ponds into their present-day configuration, complete with a small island, the ultimate goose nesting site. It created a perfect refuge.

In January 1963, the Department of the Interior informed Michael that his “Federal Propagating Permit Number 4-157” had expired and demanded that he dispose of all his geese. Michael resisted, and the authorities stepped in.

Neighbors had complained. In a 2002 interview, Michael’s wife Belinda recalled that the county sheriff received calls from the nearby Lake Barcroft community, where the geese were spending a lot of their time. To solve the problem, a game warden was dispatched to round up the flock and transport them 180 miles away. He was evidently unaware that even resident geese like to move around, pond-hopping at distances of up to 300 miles a day. “I think there were 37, and 42 came back,” said Belinda.

Long story short: Michael battled the government and ultimately won the right to carry on feeding cracked corn to his geese without a federal permit.

Canada geese still enjoy a haven at Green Spring and throughout the D.C. suburbs. They are federally protected, and they are highly efficient breeders. To mitigate damage and conflict with humans today, Fairfax County uses a range of humane methods to keep the goose population in check, including deterrents, landscape modification, and egg-oiling conducted under special permits from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Geese were introduced to St. James’s Park and to Green Spring out of love and admiration, and they do have admirable qualities. Canada geese are intelligent, highly social, cooperative and loyal. They mate for life and mourn a partner’s death. They are extremely protective of family members and display aggression only when defending them, otherwise they are quite amiable towards humans. They honk, hiss, and flap in annoyance, but also coo in affection. We can co-exist if we mind our manners around them. No running or shouting or getting too close, especially if there are goslings nearby. They are entertaining to watch; enjoy the show!

To learn more about Canada geese management in Fairfax County, go to: https://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/wildlife/geese-management-program

Michael and Belinda Straight donated their Green Spring estate to Fairfax County in 1970. Their gift to the community comprised the 1784 house, the c. 1830 springhouse, various outbuildings, 18 acres of land, two ponds and – love them or hate them – all resident Canada geese.

Author Debbie Waugh is the Historian at Green Spring Gardens.



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About Fairfax County Park Authority

About Fairfax County Park Authority HISTORY: On December 6, 1950, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors created the Fairfax County Park Authority. The Park Authority was authorized to make decisions concerning land acquisition, park development and operations in Fairfax County, Virginia. To date, 13 park bond referenda have been approved between 1959 and 2016. Today, the Park Authority has 427 parks on more than 23,000 acres of land. We offer 325 miles of trails, our most popular amenity. FACILITIES: The Park system is the primary public mechanism in Fairfax County for the preservation of environmentally sensitive land and resources, areas of historic significance and the provision of recreational facilities and services including: • Nine indoor RECenters with swimming pools, fitness rooms, gyms and class spaces. Cub Run features an indoor water park and on-site naturalist • Eight golf courses from par-3 to championship level, four driving ranges including the new state-of-the-art heated, covered range at Burke Lake Golf Center • Five nature and visitor centers. Also nine Off-Leash Dog Activity areas • Three lakefront parks including Lake Fairfax, Lake Accotink and Burke Lake, with campgrounds at Burke Lake and Lake Fairfax. The Water Mine Family Swimmin’ Hole at Lake Fairfax, Our Special Harbor Sprayground at Lee as well as an indoor water park at Cub Run RECenter • Clemyjontri Park, a fully accessible playground in Great Falls featuring two acres of family friendly fun and a carousel, as well as Chessie’s Big Backyard and a carousel at the Family Recreation Area at Lee District Park • An ice skating rink at Mount Vernon RECenter and the Skate Park in Wakefield Park adjacent to Audrey Moore RECenter • Kidwell Farm, a working farm of the 1930s-era at Frying Pan Farm Park in Herndon, now with historic carousel • Eight distinctive historic properties available for rent • A working grist mill at Colvin Run in Great Falls and a restored 18th century home at Sully Historic Site in Chantilly • A horticulture center at Green Spring Gardens in Annandale • Natural and cultural resources protected by the Natural Resource Management Plan and Cultural Resource Plans, plus an Invasive Management Area program that targets alien plants and utilizes volunteers in restoring native vegetation throughout our community • Picnic shelters, tennis courts, miniature golf courses, disc golf courses, off-leash dog parks, amphitheaters, a marina, kayaking/canoeing center • Provides 263 athletic fields, including 39 synthetic turf fields, and manages athletic field maintenance services at 417 school athletic fields. PARK AUTHORITY BOARD: A 12-member citizen board, appointed by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, sets policies and priorities for the Fairfax County Park Authority. Visit https://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/news2/social-hub/ for Fairfax County Government's Comment Policy.

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