The Christmas Goose

Dec 21, 2017

Is goose on your menu this holiday season? In this episode of Wildlife Matters, the Masked Biologist takes a look at the tradition of the Christmas goose and the status of our native migratory geese.

A few years back, I was doing some research on what a traditional German Christmas feast contained. I learned that, while hogs were usually butchered in fall and eaten in winter, it was a real treat to harvest and eat wild geese. In fact, the goose was not just a preferred German holiday feast; many European stories and songs reference the Christmas goose. It wasn’t until Charles Dickens’ book A Christmas Carol was published in the mid-1800s that the idea of serving a turkey for Christmas meals caught on. Geese were delicious, affordable, and readily available in the fall. Turkeys, by comparison, were an exotic bird, not native to Europe, which is why in the story the butcher had a prize turkey that still hung unsold in his display window on Christmas Day. Scrooge sent a small boy to fetch the bird, to the boy’s complete disbelief. No one could afford such an exotic, expensive and extravagant meal. Perhaps a modern-day comparison might be sitting down to a meal of Pacific bluefin tuna or Kobe beef.

Today, the goose has lost its stature to an extent here in the United States, not only as a holiday meal but as a wildlife species. There was a time when geese were highly valued, signaling the changing of the seasons with their spectacular spring and fall migrations. The largest subspecies of Canada goose, the so-called giant Canada goose, was thought to have gone extinct in the middle of the last century. Then, in 1962, a small population was discovered by a power plant in southeast Minnesota. Geese from this population were trapped and released in several locations across the nation, where populations grew and flourished. There are an estimated 1.5 million giant Canada geese in the U.S, a wildlife success story.

Today, many giant Canadas are treated as pests. Geese make grassy areas, like parks, golf courses, and large lawns unpleasant with their droppings. They eat plants, including grasses, flowers, and crops right down to the ground, and one adult goose can generate one to two pounds of droppings a day. For these reasons, they are rounded up in parks and euthanized. Fences are put up to keep them out of beaches and other shoreline areas. Their eggs are sprayed with an oily coating to keep them from hatching. In larger cities, there is an industry devoted to hazing geese, usually with dogs, to make them feel unwelcome and reduce conflicts with property owners. We issue shooting permits to farmers experiencing crop damage, and we have a special extended hunting season, basically extending from Labor Day weekend to late December, to help keep their numbers in check.

I mentioned there are multiple species of Canada geese. I can’t say for certain how many there are, because ornithologists (bird scientists) like to re-classify bird species and subspecies as they gain more information about genetics and other pertinent information. For example, the smallest subspecies, the cackling or Richardson’s Canada goose, was reclassified as its own distinct goose species by the American Ornithologists’ Union in 2004. However, there are still three or four other Canada goose subspecies. The interior Canada goose is one whose population we closely monitor here in the Mississippi flyway. In fact, as a state that has an extended Canada goose season, we are required to put leg bands on a number of local “giants” each year. Harvest information on banded birds helps us determine what percent of harvested birds were hatched in the United States, and how many were hatched near Hudson Bay. The goal of the extra goose season is to keep the population of giants in check while keeping the smaller population of migratory interior Canadas in balance.

This year, wild game is not on the menu; my hunting take this fall was as meager as it can get. Here’s hoping that you got your Christmas goose, if that is what you desired, and that you and your family take some time to think about your good fortune to live in such an amazing place that has so much variety of wildlife to offer. I know our family will!

Striving to make new things familiar and familiar things new, this is the Masked Biologist coming to you from the heart of Wisconsin’s great Northwoods.