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  • June 1st, 2017

GOOSE BICYCLING

By joel M. Vance

No one would confuse Dr. Charles and Dr. William Mayo with Dr. Frankenstein, but they created a monster nonetheless. In 1932 Dr. Charlie and Dr. Will bought three pair of Canadensis maxima, the largest subspecies of Canada goose, which had been used as live decoys (the practice was outlawed in 1935). And today 18,000 Giant Canadas clog the city of Rochester, Minnesota, like plaque in an artery.
Rochester is the home of the Mayo Brothers Clinic which dominates the city economy, so the city fathers aren’t about to tell Mayo to get its damn geese out of town, but the flock of geese is a whole lot more healthy than most of the folks who visit the clinic. Benumbed by geese and goose droppings, Rochester frets about how to introduce Zero Population Growth into the avian world. Egg shaking and other contraceptive ideas have trimmed the flock back to its present level, but there still is a world of geese, winter and summer.
It could be worse—in fact it was. At peak the flock topped 30,000. Giant Canadas, as they are popularly known, tend to resident nest rather than migrate and in Rochester they have a lake kept ice-free all year by warm water from a power plant discharge—their own little hot tub.
As annoying as the geese are (they do have terrible bathroom habits), they provide scenic accompaniment to a bicycle ride along the Zumbro River, which bisects the city of 103,500
Other than having to bicycle through copious goose poop, the animals create no problems on the city’s more than 80 miles of bike trails. Rochester is among the nation’s most “bike friendly” communities along with its larger northern neighbor Minneapolis.
Many of the biking trails wind along the Zumbro Rivers and around several lakes within the city. Other trails eddy out from the city creating a network
Goose droppings and feathers litter the green belt along the river, a less-than-attractive mess. But the geese are a perfect example of one man’s poison being another man’s passion (or in one case anyway, the passion of teenage girls). A friend, jogging the bike/hike trail (and dodging avian fecal landmines) said, “Two days in a row I saw a pair of teenage girls–I swear the same ones–feeding Cheetos to the geese. A perversion!”
But while I recognized the sputtering population bomb, I had to stop and enjoy the sight of 10 goslings herded across the bike path by their watchful parents. The babies, not long out of the egg, scooted in front of me, while the gander and goose hissed a distinct warning, shaking their heads—you don’t mess with the family life of a Giant Canada goose without risking contusions and shed blood.
This is a hunted flock, assuming it flies out of the city limits to feed during goose season, but protected by city ordinance they tolerate bicyclists and joggers equably. Canada geese, being birds, are not intellectual giants, but they are among the most intelligent birds and to them a shotgun blast anywhere within hearing means to draw in to the urban sprawl and enjoy human-watching.
Brad Jones, director of the Rochester Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, says, “Rochester is among the country’s most bicycle-friendly cities, along with Minneapolis in Minnesota. You can link with 60 miles of bicycle trails from downtown.”
And those in turn link with many more miles through the Root, Cannon and Zumbro river valleys. The 20-mile Root River Trail is a rails-to-trails conversion which offers level riding. The 20-mile Cannon Valley Trail is on what used to be the Chicago Great Western Railroad line, which connected the towns of Cannon Falls, Welch, and Red Wing. And there is the 55-mile Douglas Trail.
I stayed at the historic Kahler Hotel, Rochester’s original way-stop for Mayo-bound patients. I wheeled my bicycle into my room from the parking garage and rode out from the garage, into downtown traffic. It’s a three-block ride to the river bicycle trail but once there automobile hazards vanish.
Always there are the geese, lounging by the riverside, herding their kids, bobbing in the chop of the lakes. Canada geese are a sociable lot—I’ve never seen a squabble among them, although they undoubtedly get ticked off from time to time.
In fact, a ticked off Canada goose, especially of the giant variety, can be a formidable opponent.
I vividly recall when I worked at the Missouri Conservation Department, one of the assistant directors returning from lunch at a nearby cafeteria, along a path, guarded by a large male goose, was sent in full flight, much to the amusement of those employees lucky enough to see it happen. I think there was some talk about entering him in the Olympic sprints, but it didn’t happen. However, he ate his lunches out of a sack in the office until the nesting season was over.
Every spring for years, department employees would round up flightless geese during their molt so they could be examined and if need be transplanted to other locations. The wildlife workers handling the geese, usually wore welding gloves or something similarly protective because the geese have toenails like the claws on a Bengal tiger. They also can flog you with their wings which is somewhat like being beaten with a baseball bat. And they have powerful bills that can snap shut like a rat trap— all together a long way from a helpless creature.
The Rochester flock has the distinction of having provided seed stock for a restoration of a creature once thought to be extinct. The giant Canada geese once nested and probably still do in the bluffs along the Missouri River. Lewis and Clark saw them on their historic journey up the Missouri and commented on them. Hatchling geese as light as feathers would leap off of their bluff nest and flutter to the ground far below them, without injury. Then they had the daunting task of trying to make it to the river before some hungry predator discovered them.
Turned out the most daunting predator was man. Over harvest and other man related perils brought the geese to the brink of extinction. Once numerous, by the middle of the 20th century they were thought to be extinct.
Lewis and Clark wrote about many of their encounters with wildlife but didn’t mention any narrow escapes from pursuit by angry ganders. If they did have such an encounter it probably paled in comparison with a narrow escape that a private Bratton had after being chased a half a mile by an angry grizzly bear.
Then there was the time that Jim Fowler host of television’s Wild Kingdom literally ran for his life and climbed a tree just ahead of the claws of a grizzly bear that had awakened from a tranquilizer a little bit too soon. On the whole I prefer an encounter with a an angry Canada goose to one with a 1,000 pound bear.
Restoration of the giant Canada goose has been ongoing for about 60 years to the point that the geese now have become nuisances in many communities where they eat gardens, foul golf courses and generally act like 1,000 pound grizzly bears.
They’ve come a long way from a species once thought extinct. In 1954 Jean.Delcour in his book “Waterfowl of the World” said that the giant goose appeared to be extinct. But Forrest Lee a biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service, noticed Canada geese roosting on a warm water lake at a power plant in Rochester.
Lee invited Harold Hanson of the Illinois Natural History Survey to take a look at the huge geese on Rochester’s Silver Lake. The geese, remnants of historic live decoy flocks, proved to be Branta canadensis maxima—the giant Canada goose of Lewis and Clark fame.
Geese transplanted from that seed stock to other areas began to breed and now there is a nationwide flock of epic proportions, hunted and cursed, sometimes with equal velocity. But they can be a charming sidelight to a bicycling trip in downtown Rochester, if you don’t mind squishing through goose droppings along the way. And if you do somehow run afoul of a fowl, you’re only a block or two from the Mayo Clinic where they are fully equipped to take care of goose wounds.

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