Iowa's Canada Goose Story

Iowa's Canada Goose Story

When you're talking goose hunting, there's nothing quite like Iowa's section of the Mississippi Flyway. More geese travel this route than any other in the country.

The history of Canada geese in Iowa is a storied one. Through the 19th century, giant Canada geese nested all across the Hawkeye State; by 1910, however, they were virtually gone. As in the case of so many wildlife disasters of the era, the culprits were unregulated harvest by hunters and a loss of habitat. It wasn't until the 1960s that federal and state agencies kicked off a program to restore the big birds to their natural homes in Iowa.

The strong population of Canada geese whose presence the Hawkeye State now enjoys comes, oddly enough, from the same birds that inhabited Iowa in the 1800s. Farmers in Iowa and Minnesota trapped geese for decades in the latter half of the 19th century and raised them for food and feathers. The descendants of these penned birds were used to repopulate Iowa in the 1960s.

The brainchild of Wildlife Bureau chief Richard Bishop and Ingham Management Unit biologist Ron Howing, the restoration program began in 1964 with 16 pairs of birds. Today, the Wildlife Bureau estimates, more than 40,000 birds breed in Iowa each year. By late summer and early fall, these same birds and their offspring provide fall flights that typically total about 75,000 geese.

Three of the 11 different subspecies of Canada geese come through Iowa during the fall and spring migrations. The largest and most common of these is the giant Canada goose (Branta canadensis maxima); it averages between 11 and 12 pounds and sometimes reaches 16 pounds. Averaging 6 to 9 pounds, interior Canada geese (Branta canadensis interior) are slightly smaller than their adult giant cousins but about the same size as immature giant Canadas. The third of the subspecies is the Richardson's Canada goose (Branta canadensis hutchinsii); decidedly smaller than its cousins, one of these birds will generally weigh less than 6 pounds.

A few of Iowa's Canada geese- up to 30 percent - will begin nesting at 2 years of age; the rest start at 3 years old. Geese typically begin nesting in the Hawkeye State between mid-March and mid-April, which is just a few weeks earlier than the time at which nesting behavior begins to exhibit itself in more-northerly latitudes.

Photo by Tom Migdalski

When looking for an appropriate nesting site, the female Canada goose generally returns to the area in which she first learned to fly. This behavior, which biologists call "homing," is akin to the salmon's practice of returning to its birthplace to spawn.

The female calls the shots when it comes to nesting: She heads for the appropriate site and her mate follows. Once a spot is selected, the pair will ordinarily return to it year after year, especially if their nesting is successful. Ponds providing protection for nest sites and having a feeding area nearby, as well as spaces for brood-rearing that lie within walking distance for both parents and their flightless young -adult geese and their hatchlings may cover several miles on foot in the course of a day - are optimal choices.

With a site selected and a nest built, the goose will lay an egg daily for as many as 10 days, the average number of eggs per goose running between five and six. She'll begin incubating the eggs only after the last one is hatched. It takes about 30 days before the eggs hatch.

Although geese are excellent parents that zealously guard their nests, predation and flooding take a toll. Skunks, raccoons, foxes, coyotes and a variety of other animals are determined raiders. And once hatched, the goslings are still very much in harm's way. It takes an average of nine to 10 weeks for the gosling to begin to fly, and until then, they frequently fall victim to bad weather, disease and predation. Plenty of animals out there are looking for a goose dinner at this time of year, so if three or four of the goslings in a nest reach flight age, things are going very well for the brood.

Although much of Iowa offers excellent Canada goose habitat, it's only natural that some of our very best Canada goose hunting takes place along our stretch of the mighty Mississippi River, the queen of all water-fowl flyways.

Fortunately for goose hunting aficionados, virtually all of this section is open to hunting, and there are a number of high-quality public hunting lands to choose from. In fact, the only portion of the state along the Mississippi that's closed to Canada goose hunting is in Green Island Wildlife Management Area. Another area closed to Canada goose hunting lies the southeastern part of the state in Davis and Van Buren counties. Those interested in the precise boundaries of the closed areas should pick up a copy of the area map from local conservation officers, the local county recorder's office or from Iowa Department of Natural Resources offices. Individual closed area maps may also be ordered from the IDNR by calling (515) 281-4687.

For decades, biologists have kept tabs on goose populations by capturing and banding birds. Still in use today, this practice requires the cooperation of goose hunters if its continued success is to be assured.

Banding takes place during the summer, when Iowa's geese are molting. In the last two weeks of June, when the birds are in the process of replacing their flight feathers, IDNR Wildlife Bureau biologists herd the geese into pens, examine them individually, and place a numbered aluminum legband or plastic neck collar on them; this done, the birds are liberated. The IDNR bands between 4,000 and 4,500 geese each year.

Biologists can learn a great deal from these tags once they're returned by hunters - usually within two or three years. It's the most effective tool they have for ascertaining the range, ages and migration habits of the geese.

Goose hunting bag limits, season dates and the selection of closed areas are settled on only after a lot of hard work is put in by many talented biologists and wildlife technicians at the state, national and intercontinental levels. Their job is a tough one: to balance the requirements of the species with the wants of the hunting public. On one hand are the birds themselves, and the obligation to manage the species beneficially; on the other hand are considerations respecting the habitat required by the birds and the demands they place upon it. Finally - on some mysterious third hand? - there are the hunters, who, quite naturally, want to see lots of birds and to be afforded plenty of days during which they can successfully hunt them. Maybe "balance" isn't the most apt word here; perhaps the job of biologists and wildlife regulators is more akin to juggling.

In his treatise, "Canada Goose Harvest Management in Iowa," IDNR waterfowl research biologist Guy Zenner wrote, "For most of the 20th century, the status of sub-arctic and arctic-nesting Canada goose populations determined hunting regulations for all Canada geese in the Mississippi Flyway. Giant Canada geese were not considered in the equation because their numbers were insignificant (an estimated 20,000 in the early 1960s)."

With regard to the high-wire act that is wildlife management, Zenner remarked in his study, "When sub-arctic and arctic-nesting Canada goose populations were high, hunting regulations were liberal. In Iowa, for example, a liberal Canada goose hunting season was 70-days long with a 2-bird bag limit. When the Canada goose populations were low, hunting opportunities were restricted. A restricted Canada goose season Iowa was usually 45 days long with a 2-bird bag limit, although sea-sons were as short as 23 days with a 1-bird bag in the 1970s."

That a variety of goose species can be found out there complicates matters. Giant Canada populations may be on the rise, but another species may be declining. There is a tendency on the part of regulators to manage for the lowest common denominator - for the species failing to thrive. This is great for the struggling species, but it may not be in the best interests of prospering species - or of Iowa's goose hunters.

The 2002-03 hunting season sees Iowa goose hunters enjoying fairly liberal regulations, which should allow the harvest of birds aplenty. The season opened on Sept. 28 in both the North and South zones. In the South Zone, the first segment of the season closed on Oct. 13, and the second segment runs from Nov. 2 through Dec. 25. In the North Zone, the season runs continuously through Dec. 6. The bag limit on Canada geese is two. Migratory game bird and waterfowl hunting regulations and season dates are published in a flyer that has been available since late September at IDNR offices, county recorders' offices and the many retail outlets at which licenses are sold. Be sure to check the latest regulations before you pick up your shotgun this season.

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