How geese became the assholes of the sky

Of course the main character of everyone’s favorite new video game is a horrible goose. What other kind is there?

Last month, I spent what I was hoping would be a pleasant afternoon at a small, manicured park in an affluent suburb of Atlanta. Alas, my calm reverie was disrupted by a disconcerting loop of audio that, every half-hour or so, bellowed shrill samples of goose distress calls from large speakers mounted above the tree line. The playlist startled me every single time, but its intended recipients — a flock of about two dozen geese squatting along the shoreline of the park’s small pond — remained unfazed.

As I approached, a few members of the flock began to trundle through pile after pile of their own waste toward me, a kind of empty hunger in their opaque black shark-eyes. Mostly out of fear, I tossed a tiny wad of bread to the ground, which of course escalated everything. Within moments of one lucky goose stretching its long, undulating black neck down to the ground and snapping up my tithe into its craw, it looked me straight in the eyes and hissed, revealing to me the razor-ridge inside its beak and the Bubble Yum pink of its tongue. Typical goose shit.

The experimental soundtrack blasting that day at Laurel Park was just one of the many, many creative and frequently pointless mitigation techniques that humans have employed in recent decades in an effort to rid our landscapes of these avian interlopers. Geese are far from the only species to be culled after encroaching a little too far into human spaces, but unlike, say, deer, there seem to be very few people taking up their cause. Geese hiss, bite, and give chase to things they’re supposed to be afraid of. Geese are derelicts and freeloaders, sullying our subdivisions and parks with their feces and feathers. Geese, we seem to have collectively decided, are complete dicks.

While opossums and raccoons are being upcycled as Instagram fodder, and pizza-dragging, capitalism-shredding rats act as celebrated totems for our collective existential dread, the goose has little hope for redemption. Plenty of other “nuisance animals” exist, and plenty of other animals act like assholes, but geese seem to occupy a special and enduring tier on our collective Animal Acceptability Barometer.

No other possible animal would have worked so seamlessly in everyone's favorite new video game, Untitled Goose Game, the entire premise of which is role-playing as an agent of chaos. We intuit the premise perfectly: Of course it makes sense that a goose, of all creatures, would snatch a kid’s glasses and trap him in the phone booth. Of course a goose RPG would come equipped with a “honk” button that serves no other purpose than to startle and rankle innocent passersby. Of course the main character is a horrible goose. What other kind is there?

Geese are, first of all, frightening. Joggers map out their running routes around them. Countless children have endured goose-induced trauma. A friend of mine, Richard, grew up in south Georgia and has one such memory that still haunts him: selling doughnuts door-to-door for his Cub Scouts pack as a five-year-old, he approached a woman’s house whose front lawn had been usurped by geese. “This absolute unit of a goose stares me down and slowly raises his white wings and proceeds to chase me around the truck as I am screaming for my life, while my dad, brother, and Miss Marjorie are dying laughing on the porch,” he told me. "’Ooooh, boy, you better run! Run, Richard!’ still haunts me to this day.”

Geese do not quail at the sight of us; they run toward us. This, as a human, can be upsetting. An adult male Canada goose might weigh between five and 15 pounds, which means when it’s coming at an adult human, it’s stunting on a predator that might be 1,800 percent its size — the mathematical equivalent of that same human in turn chasing off a 3,000-pound animal, like a white rhino or a hippo.

That behavior has a simple explanation — geese are territorial. They protect their nesting sites, their eggs, and their goslings, and can become, yes, rather aggressive in doing so. A goose will wreck your shit because a goose does not know fear.

Do you know who loves a bland corporate office park, a sprawling golf course, or a cookie-cutter subdivision with a modest water feature even more than middle-class Americans do?

Paul Curtis, a professor of wildlife science at Cornell, who has been studying human-wildlife interactions for the past 30 years, embarked on his first goose research project two decades ago, and in 2000, co-authored a paper for Cornell Cooperative Extension on how to manage urban geese. “I've known parks here in New York state that have geese that come back year after year and nest in the same spot along popular hiking trails,” says Curtis. “Just around the month of nesting season, they literally have to put up signs and close the trails because they don't want people chased or bitten by the geese.”

It isn’t just the aggression — the birds are big, with a jarring, aggressively discordant honk, and that bone-chilling hiss. “People perceive them as threatening,” says Bernard Quetchenbach, author of “Accidental Gravity,” which includes an essay contrasting the majesty of geese in migration with our collective distaste for resident Canada geese.

“We're used to robins,” says Quetchenbach. “Little birds, we're kind of at home with. But the Canadas… there's a certain wildness to them. It's not supposed to be right up next to us.”

And unlike other wildlife one might enjoy seeing from a distance and in its proper context — a deer frolicking through a meadow, a squirrel scrambling up an oak tree with a tiny acorn in its puffed-out cheek — geese barge into spaces intended solely for humans. Do you know who loves a bland corporate office park, a sprawling golf course, or a cookie-cutter subdivision with a modest water feature even more than middle-class Americans do? Geese, motherfuckers.

“People have created housing developments with lots of mowed lawns and water retention ponds, and anytime you'd have mowed turf coming down to the water's edge somewhere, that's just ideal habitat for geese,” says Curtis. “We created that over and over again on school grounds, corporate parks, all sorts of public parks around the country. Golf courses all have just outstanding geese habitat.”

For an animal that eats grass and hides from predators in bodies of water, these environments are the goose’s HGTV Dream Home. We keep building them, so they keep coming. Can we even be mad?

It wasn’t always this way: Before we decided that geese were assholes, we worked very hard to protect them. (Too hard.) The story of the Canada goose in America is an illustrious history of humans meddling with nature and reaping the consequences. Americans have long hunted geese for their down, and after the population was brought to the brink of extinction in the late 19th century, the pendulum swung to conservation, with the passage of the Migratory Birds Treaty Act in 1918, the release of domestic flocks bred in captivity, and the re-establishment of flocks by the Fish and Wildlife Service in the ’60s with projects like Operation Mother Goose. In turn, those flocks reproduced exponentially, simultaneously giving rise to droves of so-called “resident geese” who travel much, much shorter distances than their migratory counterparts. (Or, in some cases, not at all.)

Perhaps the biggest affront to our sensibilities: The goose does not yield to human demands.

All of this means that there is one party singularly responsible for our modern goose condition, and it’s us.

But now there are too many of them, and they’re shitting all over both our homogenous artificial landscapes and our idealistic notions of what it means to engage with the natural world. Geese fly in the face of how most people want to enjoy nature: from a polite distance, in a picture-postcard setting. “The suburbs are sort of this sanitized version of nature,” says Quetchenbach. “We all like the idea of the deer grazing in the distance but we don't want them in the road, or in our gardens. Same thing with the geese.” With backyard wildlife, he adds, “it’s almost like we should be able to visit them, but they shouldn’t be able to visit us. We've carved out these neighborhoods that are supposed to be our space.”

Perhaps the biggest affront to our sensibilities: The goose does not yield to human demands. Once they establish their nesting sites, not only are they extremely difficult to move; they’re creating heirs that imprint on the site itself. A flock of geese that nests at a golf course will subsequently breed a whole new generation of goslings born with the biological imperative to return to said golf course to nest for the rest of their lives. Theoretically, barring interference from humans or other predators, this process will be repeated, generation after generation. Death will take every last one of us, and that lineage of geese might still be shacking up at the ninth hole for years after we’re gone.

“There's this sense that we want nature, but we don't want nature to be out of our control,” Quetchenbach says. “And geese are out of our control. They don't really do what we tell them to.” Geese, he adds, care not for the arbitrary constructs we assign to these spaces, nor for our notion of keeping nature separate from human environments. “The problem with geese is, they stick [up] their noses to our separateness,” he says. “That wall we set up is meaningless to them. They look at a big golf course and say, hey, this looks pretty good. They don't see it as a golf course. It's a nice, green place.”

Whether we’re talking about geese, or rats, or seagulls, one thing remains true: Most of the species we consider nuisances are in fact the ones we most enable through our own behaviors. We raze woodland habitats and replace them with spaces in which animals like geese will thrive, then we resent them for doing so. We create astonishing amounts of garbage, then take issue with wild animals availing themselves of our trash buffets. We hunt a species to near-extinction, then rush to over-correct our own errors, bungling our way into an entirely new problem. One that, in this case, results in a slick of feces on our soccer fields and public beaches.

In other words, to understand the dicks of the bird world, we must confront the dicks within. The horrible goose was us all along.

Gray Chapman is a freelance journalist living in Atlanta.