In describing what Salem is, we’d be remiss to neglect the more than 250,000 seasonal residents who make their homes in and around the city from October through April: Canada geese.
We asked you to submit photos of your favorite places to watch geese congregate, and you responded with several dozen images. We showed all of the photos to Willamette University biology professor David Craig, a bird expert who refers to the geese fondly as “flying cows.”
Craig weighed in on Salem’s relationship with the geese, as well as what he saw in the images.
This time of year, Salem is full of migratory geese that are both loved and hated by those who see flocks of hundreds gathered in their local parks, school yards and other open grassy landscapes.
For many, the chevrons of geese flying south for the winter are a welcome signal of the wild, connecting us to ancient rhythms of seasonal movement. For others, the geese are a bit of a nightmare as they produce piles of slippery and foul fowl droppings — and their honking may provide an unsettling reminder of an “angry” goose encounter during summertime.
No matter what people feel about them, the geese in Salem are something distinct about our town and certainly a source of wonder.
Canada geese love Salem because our cool, moist winters and dry, warm summers provide the ideal climate — better than in any other part of North America — for growing their favorite food: grass. In other words, the birds are attracted to the Willamette Valley for the same reason as the farmers who make this area “The Grass Seed Capital of the World.”
To most people, the geese look more or less the same — brown body, black neck, and head accented by a white chinstrap. But these great flocks of Canada geese include an interesting and complicated mix of evolutionarily distinct species and subspecies that are well-described in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service publication, “Identification Field Guide to the Geese of the Willamette Valley and Lower Columbia River.”
They are divided into two major groups — the big ones and the small ones. Within Salem, most of the big ones are the Western Canada goose, and almost all of the small ones are the cackling Canada goose. Depending on the type of goose, they may be flying here from a remote island part of the Aleutian archipelago, the high Arctic tundra of Alaska and Canada, or simply a local wetland.
Long-time Salem residents may have noticed that the number of geese in the area has increased dramatically during the past few decades. This growth is mostly because of large increases in the number of cackling geese, who have shifted their winter range north from California (yes, more California invaders).
In your photos, I saw both Western and cackling geese, as well as an array of behaviors and locations worth highlighting — my observations follow.
The wide open fields of grass around schools that we see as great for running and playing are also pastures of lush food for geese to graze on. Geese like ponds and reservoirs as places to rest away from predators, but they don’t need the water bodies to feed. Also, the schoolyards are quiet on the weekends.
In the first photo above, taken by Sarah Evans at North Salem High School, you can tell this flock of geese is relaxed because of their spacing. They are spread out and many have their heads down. Nervous geese are tightly packed with all of their heads up in vigilance.
Oregon State Fairgrounds
Just like schools, the Oregon State Fairgrounds are surrounded by giant, open fields of grass — perfect for grazing geese. The birds in the first photo above, by Phil Decker, are the smaller cackling goose.
In Gil Nicholson-Nelson’s photo, a scattering of snow and frost cover the green field. The ground in Salem is rarely covered by snow for long, and although this grass would be cold, it would still be ready to eat.
On the Streets
Geese have learned that people in Salem are generally harmless, and they have adapted to our presence because we are surrounded by their favorite food.
The geese in the parking lot in Phil Decker’s photo, like many you see along our streets, are comfortable because the area is open, giving them good fields of view to spot predators. These birds, which are larger Western Canada geese, are most certainly walking from one patch of grass to another.
Cascades Gateway Park
This goose family photographed by Carmen Hernandez Armendariz is an example of the larger Western Canada goose that is increasingly choosing to breed in our wetlands.
The vigilance of these parents (the gander is on the right, and the goose on the left) is clear in their “heads up” posture — they have at least a dozen goslings here that are more than two weeks old. Part of why waterfowl have so many young is that the babies, which are flightless and naïve, are vulnerable to predators and accidents.
When we gaze upward to watch geese overhead, we observe their chevron flying behavior. Geese fly in a “v” formation to get a wind break from the goose in front of them.
The goose at the front doesn’t get the wind break, and so no single goose wants to be the leader, because they have to fly harder. If you watch a chevron closely, the lead goose is always changing.
Oregon State Hospital
The coyote decoy in Gil Nicholson-Nelson’s photo is an example of how some are trying to discourage geese from congregating. One reason is the poop — during the winter, a large Canada goose can produce more than a pound of droppings a day. The birds can damage turf grass roots, and near airports, they can be a collision hazard. During summer, breeding Canada geese are territorial and protective of their nest and young, and they will aggressively defend the goslings by hissing, honking, pecking and even biting.
The flocking behavior of geese is all about defense from predators. The birds’ intelligence and hyper-attention to their surroundings make them good at discovering the difference between a real coyote and a decoy.
The lush grass of the Oregon State Hospital grounds drew the birds in, and after a couple of days of monitoring an unmoving coyote, a few bold geese likely went in for the graze. Once one goose finds the area is safe, hundreds of others will join.
David P. Craig loves wild critters, telling stories and hanging out with creative people, and he still can’t believe this somehow qualifies him to be a professor of biology at Willamette University.