Birds skip out on annual banding

FRED POGMORE LOOKS over a flock of Canada geese at a previous year's bird-banding event. Photo by David Sausville

LARRY GARLAND AND John Mlcuch band geese at a previous year's event. Photo by David Sausville

JOHN MLCUCH, LEVI Brown and Scott Darling at a previous year's goose-banding event. Photo by David Sausville

ADDISON — On July 2, Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department (VFWD) was forced to cancel a bird banding event at Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area which was scheduled for July 3. As many as 70 volunteers were registered for the event.

The department canceled when the birds disappeared from their usual haunts in the 2,858-acre preserve. “We don’t know for certain at this point where they went, but we are confident that they are somewhere in the wetland complex.” said David Sausville, Migratory Game Bird Project Leader for VFWD.

Each June, hundreds of Canada Geese settle in wetlands and ponds across Vermont to molt. From mid-June to mid-July, they lose their primary flight feathers, grown ragged from a year’s worth of flight, and grow new ones.

This flightless period in the birds’ lives is the perfect window for the state’s ornithologists, or bird scientists, to capture adults and adolescents for banding. Scientists record each bird’s age, sex and other information and give each a unique number denoted by a steel band around its ankle. Then they use that information to track the birds’ migration as part of an international collaboration to protect certain migrating birds known as the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

Each June for the past 35 years, VFWD has invited the public to help catch and band Canada geese at Dead Creek while they are temporarily unable to fly. Locally, the goal of this banding is to keep tabs on two distinct Canada Goose communities that frequent Dead Creek: the Atlantic Flyway Resident Population geese, which make short annual migrations along the Atlantic seaboard between Virginia and southern Quebec, and the Atlantic Population Canada geese, which travel annually as far north as the Ungava Peninsula in the Canadian Tundra to nest, but stop in Dead Creek during their long migration.

Collectively, the two communities, along with other migrating birds that pass through the region, are managed by an international committee known as the Atlantic Flyway Council, comprised of representatives from 17 states and Canadian provinces along the Atlantic seaboard.

VFWD monitors both populations at Dead Creek and uses the data it collects from similar surveys across the state to set the terms of the Vermont goose-hunting season. The agency also surveys duck populations each fall.

Though the resident population of Canada geese at Dead Creek is stable and the statewide population hovers at about 60,000 individuals, the migrating birds face challenges elsewhere that impact their presence in Vermont. “In seven out of the past 10 years, we’ve seen lower production counts for their young where they nest up north on the Hudson Bay,” says Sausville.

He explained that a recent slew of long, wet winters in Northern Canada with late snowmelt have forced the birds to nest later in the spring, which leaves less time for their young to mature before they have to fly south.

“For geese, we see that they are much more likely to survive if they make it through that first year,” says Sausville. “In captivity, Canada geese can live up to 30 years. The wild birds we see during banding in Vermont are sometimes as old as 12 or 15.”

In response, VFWD reduced the Canada goose hunting season for migrating birds from about 50 to 30 days for 2019-2020 and reduced the daily take limit from three birds to two birds in the Lake Champlain region, which encompasses Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area. For 2019, Canada goose hunting season will occur in the Lake Champlain Zone and Interior Zone from Oct. 10-Nov. 8. “We don’t have a problem now, but we wanted to act before we did see an effect,” he said.

Currently, says Sausville, there are at least 60,000 Atlantic Flyway Resident Population Canada geese in Vermont and approximately 224,000 Atlantic Population Canada geese statewide. At Dead Creek, scientists counted between 55 and 70 nests this spring.

To band the temporarily flightless birds on land, scientists and volunteers carry fence segments and, as Sausville says, “sneak up on the birds” gradually closing in around them until they are trapped in an enclosed structure. Ideally, the department targets groups of 30 or more geese at a time.

Once cornered, the birds’ wings must be secured before they can be picked up. “[When picking them up] we typically come down from the end to pin their wings and aim to avoid getting whacked with their spur, or clawed,” says Sausville. “They do hiss sometimes and will pinch with their beaks, but then become quite docile.”

Volunteers hand birds to VFWD staff, who collect data. Once all the birds have been banded, they are released as a group to keep family units intact.

Occasionally, groups of birds are corralled from the water into on-land enclosures using canoes. “We usually have 30 to 40 birds on the main pond and 50 to 70 on the reserve pond at this time,” says Sausville, without concern. He says that so far this year, Vermont scientists have observed normal numbers of Canadian geese across the state, but that the birds appear to be feeding and traveling in smaller than normal groups of 12 to 15 individuals.

One theory Sausville offered for the birds missing presence this year is that the delayed hay season lured the birds to feed in places they wouldn’t otherwise look for food. “They love the fresh, green shoots that come up in short grass just after a farm pasture is hayed,” says Sausville. “It’s possible that the delayed start to the haying season is contributing to their behavior.”

Despite the missed opportunity to catch and band geese this year, volunteers who want to register to band the geese next summer or for a duck banding event in the fall should call the district office for VFWD in Essex Junction, at 802-878-1564. If you find or take a bird that has been banded, enter the number at to notify VFWD.

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