Smart birds: Canada geese give hunters the slip by hiding out in Chicago

It's open season for Canada geese in Illinois from mid-October to mid-January. Unfortunately for hunters, Canada geese are finding a new way to stay out of the line of fire. Rather than being "sitting ducks" in a rural pond, they're setting up residence in the city.

University of Illinois ornithologist Mike Ward says he and a team of researchers conducted a recent study to try to find out why there were so many Canada geese in Chicago in the winter. "We thought the geese would fly to forage on nearby agricultural fields during the day, then fly back to the city to roost, but that wasn't the case. What we learned is that they weren't going to the city for food, they were going there because there were no hunters," he explains.

The study finds that 85 percent of the Canada geese wintered in the Greater Chicago Metropolitan Area, and none made foraging flights to agricultural fields within or outside of the urban area. Their arrival demonstrated uncanny timing as well. Approximately 70 percent of the geese the researchers were tracking returned to the Chicagoland area prior to open hunting seasons.

Ward says survival rate was also high. "All of the Canada geese that spent the winter in Chicago survived, whereas half of the birds that decided to leave the Chicagoland area and go to areas where hunting is allowed, and more prevalent, were harvested."

According to Ward, the birds' ability to make use of nontraditional habitats in the city, such as green spaces, rooftops, and rail yards, and avoidance of agricultural fields suggests Canada geese may be minimizing risk rather than maximizing energy intake by using urban areas during winter.

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