Updated: Mar 22, 2022
We sat down with Brian Salt, the founder and director of Salthaven Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Centre based in Strathroy, Ontario just outside of London, to talk about Canada geese.
Brian Salt out on a canoe with some Canada geese. All photos courtesy of Brian Salt
Brendon: I've heard you say before that Canada geese are one of your favourite species. Why is that?
Brian: Why would I like Canada geese? They’re the bane of every golf course in North America and beyond. They seem to poop twice as much as they eat, which seems biologically impossible. They're one of those animals that people have a lot of negative feelings and misconceptions about. But to me, Canada geese are beautiful birds. They’re wonderful to watch. Some of the reasons why I really like them is that they are fiercely protective of their young ones. I mean, we would do the same things as a mom and dad if one of our kids was in danger. You would risk your own life to make sure they’re going to be okay! The geese are much the same way in that regard: people think they’re aggressive by nature, but they’re really not. That "aggressiveness" is an indication of how loyal they are to their own kind. And it doesn’t matter if it’s a nest they’re sitting on with eggs, or young goslings that are still vulnerable.
The other thing is that Canada geese are monogamous. It’s not rare in wildlife, but the way in which the geese are monogamous - they’re so dedicated, there’s not many other animals that have that degree of dedication to monogamy. An example: around 4-5 years ago, in spring there was a pair of geese hanging around Askin St and Wharncliffe Rd in London. One of the pair was tragically killed by a vehicle at that intersection. The surviving goose set up a vigil outside of a tire store window nearby. It sat there all through the spring, summer and fall. And in the following year, the goose came back to that same spot and was presumably looking at its reflection in the window, maybe wondering if it was their mate. People took notice and were bringing the goose food and water - of course the goose didn’t need it. But that’s the degree of dedication the geese have to one another.
There’s lots of other reasons why I like them. Their body language is very easy to read. I’ve been working with Canada geese for over 35 years now. I’m not a Dr. Dolittle and I don’t talk to the animals, but there seems to be a certain degree of body language that repeats throughout the species. The geese are also easy to physically recognize as individuals. They have unique faces and beaks, and some may walk a little differently from others.
Brendon: What’s something you wish people knew or appreciated about Canada geese?
Brian: Around this time of year, the geese have a tendency to be very protective. I don’t like using the word aggressive because it doesn't describe what's actually going on, and it makes people afraid. If you see a Canada goose walking around in spring, especially a single one (dads are usually the defenders, while females sit on the nest) - it could be defending its breeding territory and might attack to keep you away. Please be aware - birds are trying to protect their nests and young. They don't want to hurt you.
Brendon: What are some reasons why Salthaven admits Canada geese?
Brian: We bring in about 35 Canada geese per year at Salthaven. About 20 survive that aren’t too badly injured. A main source of injuries is that geese become tangled in fishing line, and punctured by fishing hooks. We also see some geese with lead poisoning. And, of course, we get lots of orphans - little ones that have been caught in the current and dragged down the river on their own, and we raise them here at Salthaven.
Brendon: How can the public support Salthaven’s efforts to help rescue Canada geese?
Brian: Unfortunately, this is a loaded question these days. In response to the ongoing outbreak of Highly Pathogenic Asian Avian Influenza (HPAI), we have just made the decision not to take in the vector species for this virus. That includes shorebirds, such as Canada geese and ducks. This really breaks our heart, because the birds are an important part of what we do here, but we will not be able to admit or treat Canada geese or certain other birds at Salthaven until further notice. The reason is because we have wildlife ambassadors here, birds that remain permanently in captivity, that we can’t protect. If HPAI showed up here at Salthaven, the authorities would likely show up and could demand that all the birds we have are turned over and euthanized.
Brendon: If pedestrians find themselves facing a standoffish Canada goose, what do you suggest they should do?
Brian: Be more aware! It's really about situational awareness – it depends on where you are, what time of year and how the goose is behaving. There is no reason to fear the geese - it's about respecting them. In general, once you’re in a confrontation situation with a goose, it’s too late to prevent issues. If you see a goose coming at you, try backing away. If you're being chased, run as fast as you can. Canada geese can fly like 100 km per hour without any tailwind at all. They're very powerful with muscular wings that could break your nose if they got you there. So, don't give them a reason to come after you! Preventing conflicts with Canada geese is about being mindful of the space around where their nests are. If you see two geese out and about, they’re probably not incubating yet - this is generally safe. But if you see a single goose out there, be wary: you can bet your bottom buck there is a nest nearby. Birds will stake out breeding territory in March, nesting will start in late March through early April, followed by baby goslings appearing towards the end of April. If you have issues with nests for geese, ducks or any other migratory birds, you are legally obligated not to disturb them. For any issues with bird nests, you'll need to get in touch with Canadian Wildlife Service.
Brendon: Can you share any funny or unusual goose stories?
Brian: We had a Canada goose brought to us a couple years ago. He had been raised by somebody - probably found in a park, a little yellow puffball, cute as can be. "What a great pet", right? The people who kept him fed him well. He was rotund and couldn’t fly for some reason. They assumed he had a fractured wing. Well, we checked him over, and found no fractures or injuries. Geese usually run to get airborne, but there were no issues with his legs. It turned out the goose was imprinted on people, as a result of having been raised by some early in life. Physically, the goose was fine, but mentally, he was really screwed up. It wasn’t that he couldn’t fly, he was afraid to fly. The other thing was, he was afraid of water. All the other geese would go in the water, but not this one. We take the canoe out into the pond and all the other geese would be splashing around and diving, but not this goose. He has a real rough time with water. Eventually, part way through the summer, he worked up enough courage, while all the other geese were out in the water, and he started to come out. Then, when he got out to the canoe he latched onto the paddle with his beak so he wouldn’t sink. He wouldn't let go of that paddle! That was a real turning point for that Canada goose. He faced a challenge and beat it. By the end of the summer, we got him flying. When the geese left in the fall for their migration, he led them out. There were literally hundreds of volunteer hours that went into rehabilitation of that goose, to get him wild enough to be able to survive on his own. In the following spring, in March, that goose returned to Salthaven. He still walked a bit funny compared to other geese and was easy to distinguish. He also brought back his new mate- who would have nothing to do with us, and would stand off in the field, while the returning goose remembered us and would come right up to people. But it seemed like after all that effort we put in at Salthaven, the goose turned out okay.
You can learn more about Salthaven and support their operations by visiting their website.