Birds living in city parks have long bred controversy

No one, it’s safe to say, is happy with the Bend Park & Recreation District’s recent decision to euthanize about 100 Canada geese, park district personnel least of all. It was the logical if unhappy result of a practice that has been going on at least since I was a child, and no doubt for years before that.

We moved to Bend when I was 6, and one of the pleasures of growing up here in the 1950s and ’60s was feeding the geese and ducks in Drake Park. Downtown restaurants encouraged the practice by giving away stale bread saved just for that purpose.

Not much changed for years. My kids, born in the mid-1980s, thought there was no greater way to spend an hour than to go to their grandmother’s to feed the “mean duckies.” Again, bread was the food of choice.

Now bread isn’t what Canada geese eat in the wild. They’re grazers, and their diet is made up of a variety of grasses, though like most animals and people, if there is an easier choice at hand they’re more than willing to limit their diet. Wheat farmers all along the Columbia River know this: If there’s water nearby, Canada geese will make winter wheat fields regular stops on their daily grazing tour of the neighborhood.

Bread from a human hand is even better. The New Hampshire public television’s NatureWorks website calls bread junk food for geese, and that’s an apt way to describe it. Like French fries from McDonalds for people, bread for Bend’s geese is cheap and all too readily available, it tastes good and while it won’t kill them, it’s not particularly good for them either.

It offers another advantage, as well. Any goose with half a brain will surely quickly figure out it’s far easier to stay in Drake Park year round and dine on bread than to fly thousands of miles to Canada and back each year in search of food. Clearly, Bend’s resident geese are among that smart set.

In fact, Bend’s bright geese figured things out generations ago. As far back as the mid-1980s, city officials, who then were in charge of city parks, were hatching plans to limit the number of resident geese in Drake Park and for the very same reasons park district officials do so today. Geese poop. It fouls the park’s lawns and walkways and, if there’s enough of it, it makes the parks dandy for the fowl but far from perfect for the people for whom the parks were built.

By 1987, officials were ready to begin trapping and moving animals when local residents intervened. Moving the birds would be inhumane, they said. Leave the birds alone, they pleaded. And so officials did.

Newspaper articles about that plan and citizens’ objections to it were at the time just the latest in a long line of discussions about wildlife in the city’s largest waterfront park.

In the 1970s, the worry was that dogs running off leash would scare the birds away, leaving the park without one of the hallmarks that have made it so popular over the years. And in 1971, the city drew up an ordinance banning boats on Mirror Pond for the first six months of the year, the better to protect goose and duck eggs and hatchlings. They did so at the request of human residents along the park who were worried about pushing the birds out of the park permanently. They had reason to worry.

If they’d lived here long enough, they were all too aware of the fate of the park’s swans. Drake Park in the 1940s was home to as many as 35 swans, all of which had disappeared by the 1960s.

The city imported pairs a few years later, but they’ve never caught on and graced Mirror Pond as they did before. The original birds met fates you might expect when wildlife take up residence within the confines of even a small city — they hit power lines or were hit by cars, or, venturing out of the protected waters that flow through downtown Bend, were shot.

Today, as they have been throughout the years, officials have been extremely sensitive to the human support for the birds that live here. They have tried a variety of ways to reduce the current goose population to manageable levels without success.

I don’t think they’re being heartless when they arrange for humane euthanasia of animals that pose a health threat, as the sheer number of geese living here do. Leaving the birds and the people around them to their own devices creates the potential for disease in both and for far less humane methods of removing the birds from our midst.

Janet Stevens is deputy editor of The Bulletin.

Source: The Bulletin ©2010