The early goose season that is going on now in Ohio may be seen by farmers as a chance to get rid of those unwanted guests around the pond. And it will help, at least temporarily.
But Geoff Westerfield, a wildlife damage biologist with the District 3 office of Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife, suggests farmers make a deal with hunters to do some goose harassment when it really counts, in the spring.
The early goose season is Sept. 5 to 13, while the regular goose season varies by zone. In the North Zone, the season is split into three parts: Oct. 24 to Nov. 1; Nov. 7 to 27; and Jan. 2 to Feb. 6.
The South Zone has only two sections: Oct. 24 to Nov. 1 and Nov. 12 to Feb. 26.
The limit is five geese per hunter, per day, and no more than 15 in the freezer.
Along with other migratory birds, geese are protected and under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. States must adapt their hunting regulations to their guidelines.
Ohio is in the Mississippi Flyway, including Michigan, Kentucky and Indiana and other states along the Mississippi River. Pennsylvania and West Virginia fall into the Atlantic Flyway, for which the Fish and Wildlife Service has different guidelines.
In the early season, hunters are mostly bagging local birds — probably all from the same county — plus a few flyway birds, perhaps from Indiana or Minnesota.
The early season gives an opportunity to keep the local geese “on their toes, especially with late-planted soybeans or double-cropping,” Westerfield said.
And that’s why farmers are anxious to get rid of geese: crop damage.
To quote a report by the OSU Extension, “Canada geese have benefited from agriculture more than any other waterfowl species. Damage is caused by grazing on plants as well as by trampling emerging seedlings. Virtually all agricultural grain crops can be eaten.”
The hatch of goslings in May coincides with early-planted crops, “so this year we saw an uptick in crop damage,” Westerfield said.
Geese tend to leave corn alone after it gets 8 inches tall and the leaves are too rough to eat, he said. Soybeans have a better chance of surviving once they’ve reached that height, but they can still be damaged by hungry geese.
The early goose season can make a dent in the resident goose population.
The problem is, the geese catch on fast. Three hunters may go out the first day and get their limit of five each. The next day they may only bag eight between them, the next day maybe one or two, Westerfield said.
“If you are hunting geese, to continue to be productive, you need to give the geese breaks from hunting,” he said. “However, if you are managing damage or just want the geese gone, you need to do the opposite and do daily harassment to be productive.”
Another problem is if you own desirable real estate, more geese will probably move in to replace the ones that bailed or were bagged.
It’s hard to imagine that geese were once “uncommon” in Ohio and elsewhere. By the turn of the 20th century, wildlife managers nationwide decided they needed to do something about goose populations that had declined because of hunting pressure, unrestricted egg harvesting and draining of wetlands for crop production.
The Ohio Division of Wildlife began a reintroduction program in 1956. In 1979, a survey put the population at 18,000. In 2012, it was estimated that there were almost 150,000 resident geese in Ohio which, coupled with the migratory ones, “more than adequately supports” the goose hunting seasons, including the early one.
But farmers cannot depend on those seasons to be the crux of goose damage control. Instead, it’s harassment — done on a daily basis — in February and March, before they get a chance to nest.
“I’ve been in this game a long time, and there’s two things I recommend,” said Westerfield, who has been helping landowners with goose and other wildlife conflicts for 20 years.
“One is using yourself, either running on foot or riding an ATV, to chase them.”
The other is to use noise. Loud noise. “Bangers and screamers are like glorified fireworks,” he said.
Bangers sound just like you’d expect. Screamers are louder and go farther. Both can be shot out of starter pistols to get them nearer to the geese.
Some hunters spend a day helping with hay or picking sweet corn in exchange for access during goose season. Farmers could also make a deal allowing them to hunt in the fall if they agree to shoot off some bangers and screamers in early spring, Westerfield said.
His district, which covers 19 counties in northeast Ohio, used to be the one with the most goose complaints. That changed when the Division of Wildlife dedicated Westerfield and three other staff members in the Akron office to work with landowners.
“Now we’ve got that setup in the rest of the state,” he said.
For that reason, Ohio has become a model for other states when it comes to preventing crop damage.
The Division of Wildlife website, wildohio.gov, has pages for managing nuisance wildlife. The Human-Goose Conflict documents include a month-by-month action plan.
Westerfield recommends printing it out and sticking it on the fridge as a reminder. It’s tougher to get rid of geese once they nest, in part because after May 1, they can’t fly.
Unlike songbirds, which lose feathers one at a time when molting, geese and other waterfowl lose their flight feathers all at once. It takes a few weeks to replace them, and during that time, they’re earthbound. But that’s nature’s way of keeping them near the nest, protecting the young, Westerfield said.
“If you haven’t chased them off by the end of May, they are stuck where they are, potentially eating your crops,” he said. “By mid-July, the parents can fly, and so can their offspring. And both can go out and graze on crops, so that is another time you may need to harass the geese off the farm.”
If geese resist harassment and nesting happens, the state can issue a permit to “work on the eggs so they don’t hatch,” he said.
There’s also a permit for capturing geese, although that is usually done by private contractors who charge by the goose. If all else fails, farmers can put up barriers between the pond and the field, like black silt fence or snow fence.
Harassment remains the weapon of choice, “but if you do things for three or four days in a row and they’re not working, don’t wait, call,” Westerfield said.
That means call your Division of Wildlife district office and ask for the designated goose damage person for your area.
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