A dozen volunteers fanned out for a hunt across Montgomery Village on a recent Saturday morning, but armed only with binoculars and clipboards as they stalked the primo gathering spots for Canada geese.
Carefully and meticulously, they tallied each Canada goose at Lake Wheststone, at South Valley Park, at North Creek and the three other spots where one of the Village’s most ubiquitous and recognizable denizens congregate.
As they have for the past decade, the bird-lovers wait every year until they migratory birds are molting, and thus their most sedentary. The count has always yielded at least 500 geese, and twice more than 600. But by end of a couple hours on June 25, the volunteers had tallied 468—the fewest geese since the count started a decade ago.
“You may not like them, but there are not that many for the acreage we have,” said Jane Wilder, one of the goose count’s organizers for the past 10 years.
For decades, Montgomery Village has prided itself on its policies that promote co-existence of man and wildlife. Not that the fowl aren’t without their detractors: complaints about droppings and general nuisance are punctuated by the occasional report of unruly teens abusing the birds.
“You get a mix, about 50-50, of people who say we should do something and others who say no,” said Scott Gole, the foundation’s assistant director of recreation, parks and culture.
Canada geese are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. However, local governments, organizations and individual homeowners can request federal approval for a range of controlling measures; relocating nests, suffocating eggs with oil, using pets to scare the geese away, or destroying them altogether.
The issue came to a head in the Village in 2001, when uproar over a perceived abundance of waterfowl prompted the Montgomery Village Foundation to put on a goose summit for residents to air their grievances and show their support. In the preceding decade, the state’s Canada goose population had tripled from 25,000 to 90,000, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
Before the summit, the foundation first wanted a count of just how many birds were making the Village's lakes their home. The first count: 534 geese and five goslings.
The crew of volunteers and MVF staff have repeated the ritual every year since. The results have been relatively static, usually fluctuating at most a couple dozen in either direction. But the last two years have shown the greatest flux since the count started: 2010’s 626 geese tied for the most ever, while 2011 brought the lowest tally and the biggest one-year drop percentage-wise.
There is yet no hard evidence as to the cause, but some volunteers speculated about an unusual winter that wasn’t conducive to plentiful hatches.
Though not infallible, Wilder says the counts are consistent enough to debunk myths and misinformation about the birds she so beloves.
“Basically, this puts the lie to, ‘Oh my God, we have too many geese,’” she said. “It’s a good reality check for people who don’t like geese, to disavow any of this stuff that we’ve got 1,000 geese or 2,000 geese, or whatever number people come up with. That’s the point of this; just to put some facts in the mix.”
Here's a breakdown of this year's count:
- Lake Whetstone 138
- South Valley Park 116
- North Creek Lake 111
- Lake Marion 37
- Kauffmann Park 36
- Ed DeSimon Pond 30
And here's the count, going back a decade:
- 2011: 468
- 2010: 626
- 2009: 515
- 2008: 513
- 2007: 508
- 2006: 547
- 2005: 626
- 2004: 509
- 2003: 548
- 2002: 563
- 2001: 539