Wildlife officials relax hunting rules to save a bloated snow goose population.

This time of year, a brown, desolate corn field in South Jersey, Delaware or Maryland can turn instantly into a bustling city of white birds. Giant flocks of snow geese -- sometimes up to 20,000 birds – migrate down from the arctic to winter in the mid-Atlantic. This year, wildlife officials are trying to ensure that for many of these birds, this will be their final trip south. WHYY's health and science reporter Kerry Grens tagged along on a snow goose hunting trip.

Listen to the radio report: [audio:sci20090226goosefinal.mp3]

Get the mp3 »

 

Transcript:

It’s a windy, predawn moment in Millington, Maryland, a few miles from the Delaware border. A group of hunters empties a truck full of plastic white birds into a corn field.

Kucharski: Right now we're setting the decoy rig up.

Jerry Kucharski runs Del Bay Guide Service. He specializes in snow goose hunting. The hunters scramble back and forth from the truck to the field to set up 1,000 decoys.

As day breaks, they settle into lounge chairs, put on a CD of bird calls, and begin their vigil.

It isn't long before a flock, 5,000 birds strong, rises from an adjacent soybean field.

Kucharski: Here they come! Here they come!

They move en masse in a black cloud, like a swarm of bees. Then about 100 birds break off and swoop low over the decoy set-up, preparing to land.

The sounds of real geese drown out the CD, and Kucharski gives the signal.

Kucharski: Heads up!

Several geese spiral down from the sky.

Kucharski: Reload!

Kucharski says a new rule allowing electronic bird calls helps attract the geese.

Kucharski: It'll probably get you another 10, 15 birds a day. But again it's not going to turn a 10 bird hunt into a 50 bird hunt.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this year relaxed several hunting rules -- allowing electronic calls, extending the season, and at certain times permitting unlimited birds. That's because geese have grown so numerous that they’re endangering habitat – as well as their own long-term survival. Susan Guiteras is a wildlife biologist at Bombay Hook Wildlife Refuge in Delaware. She says snow geese are a conservation success story.

Guiteras: There was a time when their populations were a lot smaller and that was a concern. And one of the reasons this refuge was deemed to be important when it was established was to provide habitat for snow geese. And they came.

And they multiplied. The Atlantic flyway boasts more than a million birds - about double what biologists say it should be. Matt DiBona is a game bird biologist for the state of Delaware.

DiBona: The fear is that one day there's going to be so many birds and there's not going to be enough food to support them on the breeding grounds. So rather than a controlled decline in the population, the population is just going to crash and fall through the floor. And you'll have a lot of birds just starving.

Another concern is that the birds will take down their own habitat. Arctic tundra is sensitive to overgrazing, and the birds have already decimated sections of salt marsh in Bombay Hook. So, call in the hunters, with shotguns in hand. Still, Jerry Kucharski isn't confident that he and his fellow sportsmen can cut heavily into the glut of geese.

Kucharski: I don't think so. I have used the electronic callers for the last two weeks, and the unplugged guns, and I mean it helps, but it's not the magic bullet I think people think it's going to be.

Wildlife officials like DiBona aren't so sure either.

DiBona: Whether or not that will be enough, that is something we are going to be able to evaluate. Were collecting a fair amount of harvest data.

Officials extended the snow goose hunting season a month, now ending April 18.