On Sunday night, thousands of Missourians were awakened by the calls of countless geese that sailed into the Show-Me State ahead of a cold front. I heard the birds while loading my truck for a duck-hunting trip the next morning. Their haunting cries bolstered of my fondest hope – that millions of migrating ducks soon would pour into Missouri wetlands.
For others, the natural phenomenon was a source of intense curiosity. When I got to the office on Tuesday, dozens of questions awaited me. Where had the geese come from? Why were they here? Why did they all arrive at once? Can you hunt them?
One caller had heard that the invading flock numbered some 90 million and wanted to know if that was true. I have answers for some of these questions. Only the birds themselves can answer others.
The birds that captured so many Missourians’ attention last weekend were snow geese, smallish members of their tribe that visit Missouri by the hundreds of thousands each fall and winter. North America’s breeding population of snow geese is about 5 million, so the rumor of tens of millions descending on the Show-Me State was way off the mark. That said, I have witnessed 100,000-plus snow geese at Swan Lake and Squaw Creek national wildlife refuges, and they certainly sounded like millions.
During the winter, snow geese move up and down the continent like a feathered tide. They ebb south as wetlands freeze over and snow blankets agricultural fields. When weather warms, they surge back north. They can be in Arkansas or Iowa one day and in Missouri the next.
When a large congregation of snows decides it’s time to move, they create a spectacle reminiscent of the days before Europeans settled North America. In those days, flocks of migratory birds could blot out the sun. Today we can still experience the spectacle of a quarter million snow geese taking wing at dawn, rising like a gauzy curtain being drawn up across the horizon. Even miles away, the collective roar of their voices makes you feel small.
Once that curtain is fully lifted, it can move hundreds of miles in a day. Skeins of geese ranging from a dozen to several hundred stretch out across the sky. Sometimes they fly so high as to be nearly invisible to the unassisted eye, but their voices bridge the gulf between heaven and earth, reminding us that nature’s ancient rituals are still observed by wild creatures.
My guess is that the geese we heard Sunday night were in the Dakotas on Saturday and decided to ride south on a biting north wind that spelled hardship for those that lingered. If the storm system had been smaller, many might have tarried in Iowa. But the severity of the weather convinced the majority to continue south.
At first glance, the spectacle of snow-goose migration seems completely apart from the affairs of human civilization. Occasionally, however, snows make their presence known in very tangible ways. For example, a few years ago, Kansas City International Airport had to shut down because the air above its runways was so full of migrating geese that flying was unsafe.
Yes, you can hunt snow geese. In fact, for the past 14 years the U. S. and Canadian fish and wildlife services have done all they can to encourage hunters to harvest large numbers of snow geese. During the regular hunting season from Oct. 27 through Jan. 31, hunters can take 20 snow geese daily. There is no possession limit. Starting on Feb. 1 and continuing through April 30, hunters can take any number of snow geese. This period is not a hunting season but a formal conservation order, and hunters can use electronic calls and shotguns capable of holding more than the three shells that are legal during the regular hunting season.
The goal of these measures is to reduce the number of snow geese continent-wide. Their numbers already are so excessive that they are destroying their own nesting habitat around Hudson and James bays in Canada. The scale of the ecological damage is so vast it is visible from space. Reducing the number of geese is the only way to avert a catastrophic decline, not only for snow goose populations, but for other wildlife that shares their habitat.
To learn more, visit fws.gov/migratorybirds/CurrentBirdIssues/Management/snowgse/tblcont.html.