FARMINGTON – Most “wild goose chases” are fruitless, but Utah’s Department of Wildlife Resources manages to catch about 3,500 wild geese each year.
This past week, the DWR completed its annual goose banding project — capturing and banding Canada geese around Northern Utah to track their migration patterns.
On Thursday, DWR staff and a few other volunteers were at Farmington Bay with a small fleet of airboats, which are propelled by a large fan in the back rather than an underwater propeller, allowing the boat to glide through wetlands without harming plants or birds.
You might be wondering how gravity-bound humans — traveling in a vehicle that creates a dull roar — can catch an animal capable of rapidly taking flight.
Right now, this is possible because Canada geese regrow their flight feathers every year, so for a period of time they are flightless, said Mark Hadley, DWR’s northern region outreach manager.
But just because they can’t fly doesn’t mean they don’t put up a fight.
Most geese try to paddle away as the airboat approaches, Hadley said. When they can’t out-paddle the boat, they usually dive to evade capture.
As for the best place to grab them?
“Wherever you can,” said Chad Cranney, a wetland manager with DWR who drove one of the airboats.
Bryan Christensen, a volunteer coordinator with DWR, was in charge of pulling geese out of the water on one of the first airboats that headed out on Farmington Bay Thursday morning.
The first goose the boat approached was more of a diver than a paddler — which turned out to be an effective strategy.
Lying on his stomach on the front tip of the airboat, Christensen vigorously swept his arms through the water, hoping to bump into the bird, who repeatedly disappeared into the sago pondweed — a seaweed-like plant central to the bay’s ecosystem.
The boat sat quietly in the water as Christensen and other occupants of the boat searched the surface for the bird to re-emerge. The bird popped up 20 to 30 feet away, and the chase began again.
After circling the goose at least six times, it had still managed to escape. It was the only bird of 13 pursued on this trip that wasn’t eventually caught.
After Christensen caught each of the 12 other birds, he passed them over the boat’s windshield to Hadley, who removed any plants still clinging to them, and placed them in one of two orange plastic crates.
When the airboat returned to shore, the group on the airboat hauled the two crates of birds up to a portable awning, where a group of DWR employees was sitting in camp chairs, banding the birds.
“Welcome to my old office,” said Rich Hansen, the waterfowl banding coordinator and a wetland manager, to other DWR staff members approaching the group. Hansen used to manage Farmington Bay.
The group under the awning was gathered around crates of geese. Staff would take them out of the crate one at a time, check the bird’s sex, and add a metal band to the bird’s ankle with a unique number — then they recorded this data.
“The main purpose is to determine migration patterns, mortality rates, survival rates,” Hansen said.
“We take all that data that we record, and I’ll enter it in the USGS bird banding lab database — it’ll be the date (the bird) was banded, the age that is was at banding, the sex,” Hansen continued. “We’ve got one of the longest consecutive data sets in the whole nation — we’ve been banding every single year since 1965.”
From 1965–2004, this annual effort has banded 65,000 geese. Since 2004, 50,000 have been banded. About 270 were caught at Farmington Bay Thursday.
Utah is unique because of its waterfowl management areas, Hansen said, so there are a lot of waterfowl biologists in the state — and the administration in the Salt Lake office of DWR has also been supportive of the effort.
The tracking of the birds is based mainly on the reports of hunters, who call in when they’ve bagged a bird with a band.
The other way the birds are tracked is when a bird with a band is caught again, as 69 were at Farmington Bay on Thursday.
Even though reporting the bands is voluntary on the part of hunters, Hadley said they like to participate.
“The vast majority do call in,” Hadley said. “They want to help with the conservation of geese.”
The state adjusts the hunting season based on the numbers of bands that are being called in, Hansen said.
This annual goose banding requires many hands on deck as far as DWR employees go, but it’s not difficult to get them to come out.
“For this event here, I get so much interest (among DWR staff),” Hansen said, “so we don’t open it up to the public.”
Last week, DWR rounded up and banded geese in urban areas. Hansen opened the event to the public, and got 50–100 volunteers every day, with more than 200 volunteers total.
Andie Hill, 10, participated in the urban goose banding. She also tagged along with Hansen at Farmington Bay, where she caught seven geese at the front of one of the airboats.
“I just like that ... it’s helpful for lots of people and for the geese because lots of people don’t really want the (urban) geese where they are ... and it’s helpful for the geese to release them wherever we want them to go,” Hill said. She said it’s fun, too.
Having experienced catching geese on airboats and chasing them in urban areas, Hill says “just running around trying to catch them is harder.”