Why Do Geese Have Such a Bad Reputation?

A Canada goose and its goslings swim at a lake in New York. A goose will aggressively defend its territory — especially when the little ones are around. Don Emmert/AFP/GettyImages

Nearly everyone has had some sort of run-in. It might have happened near a lake, at a farm or even your front yard. You see a regal goose and for some reason or another it comes at you, honking with wings spread wide.

Why was that goose so aggressive, and what did you do to make it so mad?

Canada geese have a reputation for being mean. They are extremely adaptable, finding food and other resources in urban areas, which is where they nest, raise their young, feed and live. "This has led to increasing conflicts between geese and people," points out the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Especially when nesting or when they have chicks, Canada geese can act aggressively toward people, "attacking" them when they come too close.

And the squawking and wing spreading are no empty threat.

"Walk too close to their territory and they will charge. They do not stop until they feel there is no longer a threat," according to Ohio Goose Control, a company that helps manage Canada goose populations, typically by scaring them with trained border collies.

"This should not be taken lightly, we have had reports of broken noses, broken ribs and even deaths caused by Canada geese attacks. One day you can be feeding the geese, and then find yourself being attacked walking to your car in the parking lot the next day."

Getting a bum rap

Canada goose and little girl
If there are no nests or babies involved, Canada geese can be pleasant. Darren Baker/Shutterstock

But in other situations, geese are gentle, says investigative journalist Mary Lou Simms, who is working on a book, "Almost human ... the hidden lives of geese. "

"Canada geese are highly compatible with humans, treating them with inordinate gentleness. Rarely are the adults aggressive toward people — and usually only during nesting season when they’re protecting their young," Simms writes in the Huffington Post.

Geese, however, can be very aggressive towards other geese and will chase each other often and for no reason than to protect their territory.

Strong parenting drive

Canada geese with chicks
When Canada geese are aggressive, they are usually protecting their chicks or their nest. Eiji Ueda/Shutterstock

Geese are simply very protective parents and don't want anyone messing with their babies. It doesn't help that as they build their nests closer to homes and buildings, they lose their fear of people, especially if people feed them.

"Breeding instincts are among the strongest drives of animals," according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. "The gander's job during nesting season is to defend the female, their nesting territory, and eggs. If a person or another goose enters the territory, the gander will usually give a warning call to the intruder before chasing it away. Some geese can be very aggressive and will only stop their attack when the intruder has left or the goose’s life is threatened."

Thomas Lameris, Ph.D. candidate at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology and member of the Goose Specialist Group, says he has often been attacked by geese when approaching their nests.

"Of course geese will be more aggressive when they tend their young or a nest. This is to defend their nests and goslings from predators, such as foxes or eagles," he tells MNN.

"Also, there are differences in personality between different geese. Some may be very explorative and aggressive, the typical leaders in a flock. Others may be more calm, look at what other geese are doing and then sometimes copy the behavior of the more bold goose. This personality is repeatable over the years. Geese will also learn to recognize specific people. A goose which has been caught several times by me, will run away if it sees me approaching, but not when the neighbor may pass by."

If a goose attacks

Even if you're a kind person and don't mean to disturb a nesting site, accidents happen. You might unwittingly stumble upon a goose family and make them very unhappy.

If a goose attacks, here are some tips from the Ohio DNR:

  • Maintain direct eye contact and keep your chest and face pointed at the goose.
  • If the goose acts aggressively, calmly and slowly back away.
  • Act naturally. Don't yell, swing at it, kick or act hostile.

How many is too many?

lake filled with Canada geese
Many biologists believe there are too many resident Canada geese. ljh images/Shutterstock

There are two populations of geese: migratory birds that breed in northern North America and fly farther south for the winter, and resident birds that make their homes in urban and suburban areas year-round. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, most of the trouble comes from resident birds.

Resident geese don't have many predators and are mostly comfortable and safe in their permanent homes. They can digest grass so they thrive on golf courses, parks and neighborhoods. Plus, some people like to feed them, so life is good — and their numbers continue to grow.

But many biologists think there are too many resident Canada geese.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology points out that its focus is "to conserve and maintain healthy populations of native wild birds." However, "where warranted because of health or environmental concerns, we support humane efforts to reduce the overpopulation of resident Canada Geese. Because this problem is so widespread, often the only effective option is to use humane lethal methods such as suppressing reproduction or removing individuals."

The organization says geese can live more than 30 years, often in suburban areas off-limits to hunting, so removing adult birds is one of the few effective ways to reduce population growth.

"That said, we know firsthand how attached some people can become to individual birds or flocks in their neighborhoods. Not all communities may choose to reduce goose populations. But conflicts will only continue to grow if measures are not taken to curb the runaway growth of these birds."

All species of Canada geese are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. However, landowners, homeowner's associations, public land managers and local governments can register for authorization to destroy nests and eggs.

More about these interesting birds

Canada geese on a pond
Canada geese often return to the same general area. AitchGee/Shutterstock

There's so much more to these fascinating birds than just an occasional bout of angry hissing. For example:

They're monogamous. Geese find a partner in their second year and they stick together for the rest of their lives, says Lameris. "In this way they become perfectly adjusted to each other, and become very good at coordinating tasks during incubation and brooding of their goslings."

There's a reason for that expression about pooping and geese. Geese have a digestive system optimized for quickly digesting grass. They have a "throughput" of about 30 minutes, meaning what they eat comes out the other in just half an hour, Lameris says. Because they are so efficient in getting nutrients, the grass has to be very green and very fresh, which also explains why their poop is also typically green.

They like familiarity. Resident geese tend to stay in the same general area, says Lameris. They know where to find the best food and where they might expect to find danger. Migratory geese will return to the same sites every winter, but that doesn't mean they stick to the exact same area.

"Contrary to popular belief, Canada geese don’t stay in one place. They’re constantly on the move," Simms writes. "People think the geese they observed at a city park or pond yesterday are the same geese there today. Trust me. Unless they’re injured, those geese have moved on. Resident geese are as addicted to flight as their migratory cousins. While they may not make the annual thousand-mile journey to Canada and back, they spend much of their time in the skies, pond-hopping from one U.S. park or waterway to another. John Hadidian, suburban wildlife director of the Humane Society of the U.S., once told me that 300 miles is nothing to a goose."