Honker Hordes

Greater snow geese, copious and invincible.

Picture a clear, cold winter morning, the fallow landscape rumpled into the distance. Look up and see, so high they’re barely discernible, thousands of tiny white arcs against the vivid blue—undulating strings of them from horizon to horizon. The snow geese are flying south.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service invites you to enjoy snow goose for your holiday feast this year. (Well, not really. But they might as well.)

See, there are kind of a lot of them—more than 5 million in all—and they’re devastating their fragile breeding habitats in the far north. They’re not doing any favors for other species up there, either.

Snow geese have three subspecies. In Virginia, we have the greater snow goose, Chen caerulescens atlantica, which winters along the Atlantic coast (its close relatives, Ross’s goose and the lesser snow goose, migrate further west and south). In early September, the greater snow goose begins its long journey from around Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, up to Greenland—it’s the most-northerly nesting goose—and soars in flocks thousands strong down the Atlantic Flyway to its Atlantic coast wintering grounds, from New Jersey to South Carolina. Numbers are especially high near the Delaware and Chesapeake bays. The Eastern Shore boasts the greatest concentration of greater snow geese anywhere.

It wasn’t always this way. In the early 1900s, the goose’s population nationwide was only 3,000, and conservation laws prohibited hunting them. This and the creation of preserves allowed the geese to recover. Then, after World War II, came large-scale agricultural crops, a food source that biologists say shifted winter feeding patterns from marshland to field. The population exploded. By 1998, greater snows numbered 800,000, and the other two subspecies four times that.

You’d think that nature would take its course and the population would crash, because resources are finite, right? “They’ve been saying that for 20 years,” says Capt.Pete Wallace, a hunting guide and founder of the Chincoteague Hunting and Fishing Center. Snow geese, he says, “continue to go and go.”

In the ’90s, wildlife managers did a complete about-face and began encouraging hunting of snow geese, the only way they could see to reduce the population. The change may have helped a little. According to the Canadian Wildlife Service, greater snow geess are down to 700,000, but it’s still too many.

“Last year,” says Wallace, “we had more than I’ve ever seen—they had no place to be. They were filling the bays up.” He describes taking hunting parties out into the marsh before sunset to wait for a flock’s evening return from the fields, where they spend the day grubbing for roots, to roost for the night. “I’ll tell them, ‘Here come the geese,’ and they don’t see them, they think it’s a cloud. It looks like a cloud on the horizon. And then there’s a roar.”

Easy pickings, right? No. “Snow geese are the most difficult waterfowl to hunt there is,” Wallace says. He remembers how, when the snow goose season first reopened, “some hunters would lay newspaper on the marsh to attract [the geese]. Now they’re reading newspapers—they’ve got humans figured out.” He adds that the wary birds won’t decoy to a spread of decoys unless it looks like a flock larger than their own. Drawing down a 2,000-bird flock requires, say, a 2,500-decoy spread, a practical nightmare. And even then, he adds, “[The geese] lower in levels, circle, then lower—this all takes minutes. They’re terrible. The hunters don’t know when to shoot.”

Good thing USFWS has further eased the odds by eliminating the three-shot limit. Want to use an electronic call? The snow goose is the only waterfowl for which this is allowed. There’s no possession limit. The one change that Wallace thinks will make a difference, though, is the extension of hours—snow goose hunters may now shoot until a half-hour after sundown. “With all that, I’m a little bit optimistic,” he says.

So yes, Fish and Wildlife would be happy for you to feast on geese to your heart’s content, from early November to March 27. Please, be their guest and go drive yourself crazy in Virginia’s marshes.

christine ennulat
Virginia Living’s Associate Editor
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