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Gathering geese: DNR banding birds for statewide study

DNR personnel surround a flock of geese, gently moving them to a center point where they are fenced in and tested. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

A massive geese-banding operation is taking place throughout Minnesota this week.  Canada geese that are molting and cannot fly and babies who have not yet learned that skill are being rounded up by the DNR, studied, tested and banded.  DNR wildlife personnel from Park Rapids, Detroit Lakes and Bemidji fanned out across Hubbard County Tuesday and Cass County Wednesday with a goal of capturing 150 geese, sexing them, taking blood and the equivalent of bird saliva samples, then banding their legs and setting them free.  The goal is to band 3,500 geese statewide.  

In a few weeks the exercise will be repeated when 3,000 ducks will be banded.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service does separate banding, DNR personnel said.  Banding tells wildlife officials how many geese are harvested, what proportion survive, and this year especially, whether the Avian bird flu crisis has hit the North Country.  It hasn’t.   Since geese tend to return to the same place they grew up, area lakes are sampled sporadically over time.  

“We try not to band in the same place every year,” said Rob Baden, area wildlife supervisor for the DNR in Detroit Lakes. “We try and move around the county.”  

This year researchers went to Fish Hook Lake and Fish Hook River, Big Stony Lake, Little Sand Lake and Spider Lake to sample the broods.  By the time researchers left Spider Lake they’d reached nearly half of their goal and were ready to move in to Cass County.  “They molt all their flight feathers so the adults can’t fly,” said DNR wildlife researcher Jeff Lawrence of Bemidji. “It’s a prime time to catch them.”  

Broods with youngsters six weeks old and older are targeted.  “They herd like cows,” Baden said.  That they do.  In a well-choreographed symphony rehearsed time and time again, DNR researchers herd the geese up to a lawn if they’re not there already sunning themselves, enclose them and start studying the geese one by one.  If that sounds easy, it isn’t.  Long periods of inactivity follow a banding as search teams scour the next lake looking for honkers.  It is a time-consuming and patience-wearing endeavor.

“Wildlife tend not to cooperate,” Eric Thorson said, apologetically more than once during the dull times. Thorson is the area wildlife supervisor for the Park Rapids DNR.  “We don’t always find them,” Baden apologized. “But you can’t ask for a better day.”  

Little wind and some sun covered by clouds/haze assisted the DNR personnel, most dressed in knee-high rubber boots and waders that undoubtedly were hot.  Thorson and assistant Amy Westmark had the scouting duties. They had done some pre-scouting investigation into the presence or absence of geese. They talk to residents, boating inspectors and others who keep track of wildlife and how many there are.  Tuesday they only got skunked once, on Little Sand Lake, when the purported flock of 40 geese didn’t materialize.  DNR personnel tend not to get discouraged. After all, they’re dealing with wildlife, which are not on a schedule remotely close to humans.  The flock of 40 was hiding somewhere, they surmised, in an alcove or hidden bay on the lake. Lesser developed lakes can present a challenge, the DNR people say. Birds can hide in weeds, on heavily wooded shoreline and in protected areas a boat can’t get to.  Bags of 100 bands are used. Each band carries a DNR serial number, a 1-800 phone number to call, an email address and other information. The bands are carefully clamped to each waterfowl’s legs so that the bird can still move without hindrance and the band is visible.

Hunters tend to be diligent about reporting their harvested geese and ducks to the agency.  That gives the DNR a good idea of how many are hunted. They then extrapolate other factors to determine a survival rate.  Tuesday a crew of a dozen-plus kept in touch via radios, so crews left behind can travel to the flocks located.  Once a flock is located, the symphony springs to life.  Banding is a huge public relations campaign for the DNR, who get to meet the residents of each selected lake and explain what they’re doing.  DNR personnel are polite, friendly and informative.  They get each landowner’s permission to trap the waterfowl and speak to each about what they’re doing, inviting them to watch the banding.  The two dozen geese on Spider Lake saw movement and glided from their sun-filled lawn out into the water.  Three boats quietly surrounded them and herded them onto the shore, where the remaining crew was waiting. They’d set up tables, chairs, plastic buckets, notebooks and supplies.  The crew physically surrounds the landlocked geese, arms out, and start moving into the center of a circle.  They are quiet, professional and determined.  This isn’t their first rodeo.  

Once the geese congregate into a circle, bright orange plastic fencing is moved into place, trapping the geese into pens.  Occasionally the geese let up a hue and cry, flapping their wings, but for the most part, it’s a civil gathering.  On Spider Lake, one goose managed to fly away, honking furiously, but the rest were isolated easily. DNR personnel then don latex gloves.  Three DNR scientists sit on the overturned plastic buckets while other DNR employees pick a goose out of the mass to hand to them. It’s quite evident they’re experts at geese handling, even though an occasionally feisty honker protests and flaps in an escape attempt.  The geese are overturned, sexed and blood sampling begins.  DNR experts generally know from sight which are females and which are males because the females have a different tummy feather colorization to them. After lining their nests with feathers to keep the goslings warm, the females’ feathers grow back slightly different in color and texture.  But the workers nonetheless follow scientific principles in sexing the geese, making their interiors protrude above the feathers.  Their necks are then sprayed with alcohol, to keep wounds clean, and a hypodermic needle is inserted into the neck. It can be tricky to find the vein, so sometimes numerous tries are in order. The geese are generally very docile during this procedure. It’s a two-person job.  Three millimeters of blood are withdrawn, labeled and encased in tubes.  Then comes the swab down the throat. That, too is labeled and encased in a tube.  

Eventually the adult geese are released, allowing the DNR to work on the babies. The adults waddle quickly to the water’s edge, not looking back.  “We tend to let the adults out right away so they call the little guys,” banding coordinator Bruce Davis said.  Sure enough, the goslings hear Mom and Dad calling from the waters and scamper off to them.  The geese swim off, none the worse for wear, and likely swap horror stories in the water.  The DNR picks up the tables, chairs, buckets, samples and notebooks and moves on to the next lake.  “If you get good bunches of birds, it only takes a couple days,” DNR wildlife technician Tom Stursa said of the banding process.            

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