Washington City Paper home page

COVER STORYMay 19, 2006

Honk If You’re Destroying an Ecosystem

It took 750,000 plant seedlings and $6 million to re-create Kingman Marsh. Shredding it was quick work for the resident geese.

By Amy Longsworth

(Photographs by Charles Steck)

Diamond Davis didn’t last long in retirement. When he started “putting on weight like two cows in a feed lot in Kansas,” he started a second career, as superintendent of grounds at Langston Golf Course in Northeast D.C. Now Davis gets all the activity he once craved, and more. His days are busy with mowing and landscaping—and trying to cope with hundreds of prodigiously hungry Canada geese that use the golf course as an all-you-can-eat buffet. Though he’s taken off some pounds, Davis is still not what you would call a small man. When he mimics a grazing goose picking through a low-growing clump of grass, blade by blade, you definitely get the idea of a large animal with finicky tastes: “I want this one, not that one, this one, not that one.” Davis sighs and shakes his head.

Canada geese are the year-round scourge of Langston, the historic club that opened along the Anacostia River in 1939 for D.C.’s African-American golfers. The birds’ selective yet voracious eating habits ravage the greens, and their prolific pooping poses a nuisance, if not a health hazard, to the players. An adult goose, which eats 3 to 4 pounds of grass per day and produces roughly the same amount of fecal material as an adult human, may carry a variety of bacteria that can cause illness in humans.

The Langston geese make Diamond Davis’ job as much about feces as it is about fairways. Goose poop sticks to golfers’ shoes, he says, and spreads from there into their cars and homes. Then there’s that habit some players have of licking their golf balls.

The brown, cigar-shaped turds that litter the Langston fairways and putting surfaces will burn the grass if allowed to sit for too long before Langston’s mowing program chops them up. As they dry, the little cigars turn white, as though tipped with ash, but if broken apart, their bright-green interiors testify to the Canada goose’s first love: tender young grasses.

(Photographs by Charles Steck)

Davis estimates that Langston hosts 30 to 50 nesting pairs but that more geese come, in droves, to feed on the fertilized greens in the mornings and evenings. And when it’s feeding time, says Davis, “they will not move. You shoo ’em away—they come right back.” The birds are big enough to add a minigolf aspect to playing Langston. One time, says Davis, “I hit a goose with a worm-burner. It wasn’t intentional, but the goose fell over with his eyes rolled back. I played on, and when I came back to check, that goose was fine—walking around.”

The year-round birds at Langston are Giant Canada geese, Branta canadensis maxima, the biggest of the 12 or so subspecies of Canada geese. The feud between them and the duffers at Langston is just one manifestation of a larger discord, a discord that affects not only local recreation but also nearby wetlands, native wild species, the health of the Anacostia, and ultimately, the quality of the Chesapeake Bay. The geese, a non-native species invited here by humans, love living along the Anacostia. And why not? In addition to the expansive greensward of the links, there’s plenty of plum habitat, including Kingman Marsh, Kingman Island, and the main stem of the Anacostia. It’s the perfect planned community: protected, mowed, and even planted with their favorite marsh grasses. There are the shallow open waters and little islands of the marsh, the thick underbrush along the shore, and the delicious native wetland plants.

The geese love native wetland plants so much that in the spring of 2001 they ate an Anacostia marsh right down to the mud, leaving behind only the few plants they didn’t care for. Along with the plants went millions of taxpayer dollars in river restoration, as well as many people’s faith that the resident Canada geese population could continue to live unchecked along the Anacostia. “The whole tidal estuary will be impacted by geese unless the population is controlled, now and in the future,” says Steve Pugh, project ecologist with the Army Corps of Engineers.

Canada geese bring two distinct mental images to mind. One is the wild, flying, v-shaped group, etched high on the spring or autumn sky, preceded by calls borne on the wind as the geese pursue their migratory instinct. This is the image that buoys the soul of a bird-lover and makes a hunter’s index finger itch. The other picture is the one that Davis encounters so often in the spring or summer—a stationary herd of large, docile, grayish birds gorging on the newly sprouted grass of a public park while depositing prolific amounts of green-brown poop.

The geese in the park are not simply members of some splinter group that decided not to bother flying north to the summer breeding ground. They’re a whole different animal: bigger, nonmigratory, and native to the Midwest. Midwestern geese were first introduced to the East Coast at the turn of the century to serve as live ground decoys for hunters. Another wave—including the Giant Canada goose—arrived in the ’60s as part of an effort to repopulate a nearly hunted-out subspecies. Lacking a migratory habit, these geese stuck around, enjoying the grass in the burgeoning suburbs.

(Photographs by Charles Steck)

On the Anacostia, resident Canada geese behave like an invasive species, and like any invasive species, they will out-compete indigenous plants and critters in an environment where they have abundant food and no natural enemy.

The geese have visited their scorched-earth tendencies on Kingman Marsh, an expanse of roughly 45 acres that lies just east of Langston. Kingman is an artificially created marsh—and before that, it was an artificially re-created lake—but at its very beginning, it was a natural wetland. In the spring of 2000, the Army Corps of Engineers launched an attempt to bring that wetland back. It dredged and pumped more than 100,000 cubic yards of sediments from the main stem of the Anacostia and used it to create the basic structure of the new marsh. The next step was to fill it with native plants and, just as important, to erect plastic and welded-wire galvanized fencing to protect those plants—as well as others that would grow among them naturally—from geese while they got established.

Just as summer arrived, a crew from Maryland-based Ecological Restoration and Management Inc. (ER&M) began planting seedlings, one by one, with hand trowels. For two-and-a-half months, the 14 men and women spent every day in Kingman Marsh, in extreme heat and serious amounts of mud—mud as high as their waists, mud contaminated with chlordane, PCBs, and PAHs.

“It does get soft,” says Griff Evans, ER&M vice president. “But the crew worked in pairs, and we had throw ropes and boards to bear the weight. Everybody’s in waders, and we had hand disinfectant, gloves, and water for washing, and we specified no open wounds. It was very, very hot, but we kept everyone hydrated.”

Didn’t anyone run away screaming? “Only one or two quit,” says Evans. “Plus, we got some incentives and games going.” At the end—that would be 750,000 marsh plants and 15 miles of anti-goose fencing later—the crew members got to play their own version of Survivor: Every half-hour, they voted one planter out of the marsh. The last one remaining won $500 cash; the others got to go directly to the cookout, stopping only to disinfect. For months after the planting, the marsh did beautifully—so well that the Army Corps, the National Park Service, and the D.C. government decided to remove the fencing during the winter of 2001. That decision proved to be an expensive lesson: Never underestimate the appetite of the resident Canada goose. In the words of Dick Hammerschlag, who monitored Kingman annually from 2000 to 2004, “the geese came in and shredded the marsh” that spring, eating all the newly accessible soft young plants as they emerged. The area lost approximately 80 percent of its vegetation cover, as well as species richness and diversity, according to a report written by Hammerschlag, who works for the U.S. Geological Survey. In areas without enough plants, water flow washed away the silt, lowering the marsh floor by a couple of inches. Wetland plant seeds have a low tolerance for flooding: If the water is too high, they won’t rebound. “It was a vicious cycle,” Hammerschlag says. “The marsh couldn’t outgrow the geese.”

Dick Hammersclag, left, with Susan Rudy
(Photographs by Charles Steck)

The Kingman Marsh revival project cost the Army Corps and the District $6 million and accounts for more than half of the $10 million they have spent on wetlands-restoration projects in the Anacostia over the past decade. The District paid its 25 percent share with money earmarked for water-quality improvement: If the marsh succeeded, it would trap sediments, process excess nutrients, and break down toxins to make a cleaner Anacostia. Additional benefits might have been the return of diverse native plant species; the possibility of luring long-gone birds, such as the sora rail, the American bittern, and the black-crowned night heron, back to the Anacostia; and the creation of a much-needed healthy habitat for fish and shellfish, otters and mink. Kingman Marsh represents approximately half of the wetlands on the eight-mile tidal Anacostia, and its ultimate failure would be a discouraging and expensive setback.

Though the marsh-seeding operation constituted an ambitious bit of ecological engineering, it wasn’t without precedent. Kenilworth Marsh, just upstream, had undergone a similar reconstitution in 1993 and was doing well. As it turned out, however, there were key differences: Kenilworth was planted just before the goose population really exploded in the ’90s, and it wasn’t near a golf course. Photographs of Kingman taken five years after the original planting tell its story: Green islands (fenced-in circles of thick wild rice) dot a sea of brown mud (the washed-out, overgrazed marsh). “There is need for some form of resident Canada goose management to curb pressure on the local landscapes from the over-abundant geese,” states Hammerschlag in his conclusions.

The geese, of course, can never do as much damage to the Anacostia as humans once did. At the turn of the 20th century, according to Pugh, most people viewed the river as a cradle of diseases, with trash-choked waters and sewage-strewn tidal flats. So the Army Corps of Engineers swung into action in the ’20s and ’30s. It widened and dredged the river and piled sediment onto the shoreline wetlands to create solid ground for parks. It built Kingman Island, Kingman Lake, and Heritage Island. For good measure, and perhaps to make a nice clean delineation between land and water, the Corps sealed the shoreline with a seawall. In the process, it stripped the Anacostia of its 2,600 acres of natural wetlands. “There was a lack of knowledge about river ecology and the importance of marshes,” says Pugh of the Corps’ earlier actions. “It was an attempt to solve a problem as understood and desired at the time.”

The Corps has since reversed its thinking on the Anacostia. “We’re restoring a whole landscape of marshes,” says Pugh, and despite the setbacks, the agency has underwritten two new sections since Kingman: the 20-acre River Fringe, on the east side of the main channel, built in 2003, and Heritage Island Marsh, currently under construction on the west bank of Kingman Lake. Based on the Kingman Marsh experience, River Fringe has been kept under an intensive anti-goose security system of fencing and other deterrents, and no one can predict how it will fare when this armor is removed. It also has the benefit of being farther from the golf course and close to the sea wall—both factors that will probably help to discourage geese, according to Pete Hill, an environmental specialist with the D.C. Watershed Protection Division. Hill has identified 41 different species of plants in River Fringe. In comparison, Kingman, which hosted more than 125 species of plants in its first year, is down to eight or nine and also has large areas with no vegetation at all.

Diamond Davis
(Photographs by Charles Steck)

Steve McKindley-Ward, a horticulturist with the private, nonprofit Anacostia Watershed Society, has been trying to cultivate wild rice and other plants in Kingman Marsh. He and others have recreated a field of anti-goose fencing consisting of circular wire “exclosures,” each 30 feet across. Every man-made attempt to tinker with nature has its drawbacks, and in the case of the fencing, says McKindley-Ward, the wild-rice plants end up being too well-protected. The fencing keeps out not only geese but all grazers, including beavers, muskrats, and herons. Subject to no grazing, the plants grow too thick—a problem that causes disease in wild rice.

A few geese kicking around in the marsh would be an acceptable ecological outcome, but environmentalists haven’t yet figured out how to manage the proper balance.

There is another goose-control option on the table, however, and McKindley-Ward, for one, is in favor of using it. He, along with many others involved in planting, funding, and studying Kingman Marsh, is convinced that “lethal methods” are the only way to cut the goose population down to size quickly enough to allow wetlands to thrive on the Anacostia.

In the past decade, many public and private property owners have culled nuisance geese from their land. Hunting laws have been liberalized in what are known as the “Atlantic flyway states,” which span the Eastern Seaboard; in some places, geese are simply rounded up during their summer molt and gassed or processed for food. At the same time, a movement to protect the Canada goose has intensified. On the Anacostia, the dilemma sits in the lap of the National Park Service (NPS), the federal agency that owns much of the land fronting the river. Only the Park Service can decide what may or may not be done to reduce the population, and five years after the problem manifested itself, the agency has no timetable for a resolution.

Perhaps that’s because there’s a lot to debate. Start with the fact that the goose quandary is a man-made problem; activists opposing goose kills invoke the argument that the current situation is not the goose’s fault. “Because of the way we manage landscapes, there are more geese, and many that aren’t migratory. But it’s all our doing, all our making,” says John Hadidian, director of the Humane Society of America’s Urban Wildlife Program. Killing geese to save wetlands is “convoluted and tortuous logic that doesn’t speak well to our ecological wisdom and certainly doesn’t speak well of our humane treatment of animals.”

Says Stephanie Boyles, a wildlife biologist with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA): “It’s not fair for these animals to be punished for a mistake man made. They didn’t destroy the marshlands—we did.”

PETA is well-known for its zero-tolerance stance and in-your-face political acts on behalf of animal rights. The organization would “strongly oppose” the lethal control of geese, according to Boyles. The Park Service would “have to prove that they had exhausted all other methods.”

Steve McKindley-Ward
(Photographs by Charles Steck)

On a mid-April day, McKindley-Ward is in Kenilworth Marsh, crouched over goose nest No. 22, gazing down at a single white egg the size of a billiard ball. He’s engaged in a form of geese control endorsed by animal-rights groups and allowed by the Park Service. It’s called “egg addling,” and it relies on a common pantry staple.

To addle means “to confuse.” It also means “to spoil, as an egg.” In the case of Canada geese, both meanings apply: The egg is spoiled, and the goose is confused. The process entails approaching each nest as soon as possible after the goose has laid her full clutch and coating the eggs with vegetable oil. The oil seals up the egg’s pores and smothers the embryo. The goose, who can’t tell the difference, will continue to sit on the unproductive nest until hunger forces her to give up, although humane protocol suggests that the egg addler return to the nest to remove the eggs before that time comes. (Simply taking the eggs initially would allow the goose to lay fresh ones.)

Egg addlers have been working the length of the Anacostia for the past three springs. The operation, which is highly labor-intensive, involves careful reconnaissance of the shoreline and close encounters with defensive, hissing geese. McKindley-Ward, who is responsible for egg addling in Kenilworth Marsh, says that the effort might keep the resident goose population from growing but that it will not reduce it. He points to studies cited by the Atlantic Flyway Council. According to one of those studies,“Reproductive control (e.g., egg treatment or sterilization) alone cannot reduce the population in an acceptable time; treatment of 95% of all eggs each year would result in only a 25% reduction over 10 years.” The council says that “an increase in adult and immature mortality rates” is also necessary to effectively reduce resident goose populations.

On the edge of Kenilworth’s open-water area, McKindley-Ward muses on what to do about nest 22. Its solitary egg indicates a “late nest initiation,” he says. From the cleanliness of the egg, he thinks it was freshly laid. To confirm, he gently picks it up and holds it in the water; when he drops his hand a few inches, the egg sinks down into it. Eggs containing mature embryos will float and should not be oiled, according to humane protocol. McKindley-Ward postulates that the goose has not yet laid her full clutch in this nest, so he will have to make a return visit. He decides to wait until then and oil all the eggs at once. He places the fresh, white egg carefully back into its large nest of sticks, lined with downy gray feathers.

When she sees a kayaker approaching, a female goose will usually hop off her nest and waddle obligingly into the water. Every once in a while, however, a nesting pair decides to stand and fight, as happens at Nest 23. McKindley-Ward uses his tried-and-true hat-waving technique to move the stubborn goose a few feet off her nest, but the gander, never far away, comes scrambling up the bank to join the fight. An angry Giant Canada goose is a formidable adversary when it comes at you with its neck thrust forward, bill open and tongue out, hissing aggressively. It’s especially alarming when you are shorter than the goose, as is McKindley-Ward when he squats down to quickly date the pair’s six eggs with a Sharpie pen and coat them with vegetable oil. A veteran of such attacks, McKindley-Ward finishes the job calmly, alternating hat-waving and oil squirting. As he climbs back into his boat, the goose resettles on her eggs. “If avian flu hits, it will be a real factor in egg-oiling—the threats to human health are pretty significant,” he remarks.

How to keep a gosling from hatching
A female Canada goose backs away from her nest at Langston Golf Course as wildlife biologist Dick Hammerschlag approaches to addle the eggs.
Hammerschlag marks each egg in the nest with an indelible pen. The date goes on one side and an X on the other.
Vegetable oil is used to gently coat each egg...
...sealing up the pores to smother the developing embryo.
The eggs are returned to the nest.
The goose returns to the oiled eggs, which will never hatch. Eventually, she will give up.
(Photographs by Charles Steck)

McKindley-Ward has about as keen an eye as anyone for spotting well-camouflaged geese nesting in the backwater brambles of Kenilworth. But even he will miss a few nests this year, as will his colleagues on other parts of the river. He has already seen three goslings this spring. Each of them is likely to live out the full 15-to-25-year lifespan of a resident goose in a protected environment.

If a goose lays an egg on Day One, her gosling is paddling about by Day 28. Would that Park Service initiatives gestated so quickly. Before the agency can take any action on an issue such as lethal goose control, the law requires staff to write an Environmental Assessment. This document presents management options, including a “preferred option,” and allows for a 30-day public-review period.

Until last week, Park Service official Susan Rudy was in charge of the assessment, but on May 12, she retired. Before her departure, Rudy denied that the concerns about potential public controversy had made the Park Service reluctant to publish an assessment. She said that the document had been drafted but needed work, and she gave no hints about its contents. With Rudy leaving, however, some veterans of the goose wars in Kingman Marsh feel pessimistic that the document will see the light of day any time soon. As McKindley-Ward puts it, “Who will be left who knows anything about this?”

Although the formal assessment process started more than a year ago, the need to address the problem was evident long before that. “I began discussions with NPS on this back at the end of 2002. I’m not exactly proud to say that over 3.5 years has passed without any real action, but this is not due to my lack of trying,” wrote the D.C. Watershed Protection Division’s Pete Hill in an e-mail.

Is the Park Service taking a necessarily painstaking approach to a complicated issue, or is it dragging its feet? “They’re dealing with a very sensitive area in Washington, and you have to go through all the hoops,” says Hammerschlag. “They will listen to all sides, and the decision they make will be based on what they hear.”

Long-term inaction by the Park Service could cost the Anacostia dearly, in part because restoration dollars may stop flowing to the area if the geese are uncontrolled. The Army Corps is done for now in Kingman Marsh, says Pugh. The Corps is now working on its comprehensive plan for the Anacostia, which is due to Congress in fiscal 2009. If there’s still no decision on the geese, then “it would not be prudent for the federal government to invest any further money in marsh restoration,” says Pugh. Surely the Park Service decision couldn’t take that long? “Well, they haven’t done it yet,” he notes.

The goose brigade—including McKindley-Ward, Hill, Hammerschlag, and volunteers—counts the resident geese along the Anacostia three times each year, in the spring, summer, and fall. On April 13 this year, the volunteers gather as the morning sun draws columns of vapor from the water, and while the coffee-colored Anacostia River slides upstream in its daily tidal commute. Meanwhile, the Canada geese that nest on the banks of Kingman Marsh get into a loud dispute. Great, amplified gulping honks fill the air and seem to echo up and down the bank as more geese involve themselves in the matter.

This morning, a couple of unpaired males might have strayed too close to a nesting pair’s territory, for a large goose suddenly appears, flying like a missile just above the surface of the water, neck outstretched, toward the intruders. Just before impaling them on its black bill, the goose swerves and lands on the water with an impressive, splashy skid.

The volunteers synchronize their watches and fan out to adjacent sites up and down the river, from Bladensburg to East Anacostia Park. They assume their positions and wait for zero hour. Beginning at 9:15 a.m., for precisely five minutes, the volunteers count every visible Canada goose within a delineated area. The total—which turns out to be 534—indicates that there has been no meaningful change in the population of resident geese along the Anacostia. Goose reduction requires a weapon more powerful than vegetable oil, a fact that places ever more pressure on the Park Service’s ongoing deliberations on the goose boom. Says Pugh, “I hope that the result is going to be something that benefits the marsh, not that makes a few special-interest groups happy.” CP