Submitted by Robyn Gillam
Over the summer, crowds of Canada Geese can be seen lounging around Pier 4 and the adjoining yacht clubs. Massing on the central lawn, frolicking on the beach or just hanging out on the docks, they look mighty relaxed. But mention their part in polluting the park and the current algae blooms and they turn downright nasty.
“You can talk,” a particularly gnarly gander hissed, as he goose-stepped menacingly towards me, “you humans drop all this trash in the park and in the water and you blame us!” I wasn’t going to take this lying down. “Look,” I said, you all poop in the water and all over the paths. It’s much worse than a few drink cups and food wrappers.” “A few drink cups and food wrappers, my tail feathers!” he honked, “Every other week, when it rains, the bay gets inundated with vast amounts of human poop…and don’t get me started on Cootes Paradise.”
I must concede that my feathered friend had a point. Let’s consider the facts. First, there are two types of Canada Geese–migratory and resident– but adults of both types are grounded for several weeks in the summer as they moult. They need to be near large bodies of water for safety while unable to fly and also happen to be one of a very few bird species that can eat grass. There used to be many more migratory geese than resident ones, but this has changed, due largely to human-induced impacts on the environment.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, hunting drove Canada Goose numbers right down, but conservation measures and the popularity of lawns created a more hospitable environment. Then temperatures began to rise, with Hamilton 1.6 degrees Celsius warmer in 2006 than in 1946. Protected from hunting and provided with lots of fresh grass as well as a warmer climate, geese preferred to stay than risk the hazards of migration.
However, there are aspects of this changing picture that have nothing to do with Canada Geese. Increased global warming results in more intense weather, and especially higher rainfall. Apart from obvious effects like erosion, repeated torrential downpours have frequently overwhelmed downtown Hamilton’s combined stormwater and sewer system. Although overflows are supposedly safeguarded by Combined Sewer Overflow tanks (CSOs), like that under Eastwood Park, the system is unable to deal with the increase, spilling 24 billion litres of sewage into the harbour in 2020. The city recently announced a plan to replace this outmoded system, but it will take over 20 years.
While goose waste undoubtedly factors into unsafe swimming conditions at Pier 4, it is only part of a much larger picture. Measures to control the geese, like planting grass they won’t eat, scaring them away or oiling their eggs have short-term effects, but mostly appear to be like water off a goose’s back.
More people moving into the Hamilton area have put pressure on all existing infrastructure and have resulted in higher demand for waterfront parks. The warmer weather makes this area more attractive to both humans and water birds, but also leads to more algae blooms.
Realistically humans have to share this space. You can enjoy the company of geese and other water birds by keeping a respectful distance, not feeding them and properly disposing of food waste. And if you feel like they are intruding, remember that they were here long before us.
For further information, see Allaboutbirds.org; Hamiltonharbour.ca and articles in the Hamilton Spectator.