NEW HAVEN — It’s a hot, humid June morning.
You’ve just herded hundreds of wild geese into a pen the size of a small bedroom. Your job now is to wade into the honking mass of birds, grab onto one and hold onto it for several minutes while someone else slips an aluminum band around one of its legs.
If this sounds like fun, you might be a wildlife biologist.
Every year, Division of Natural Resources biologists and game managers participate in the agency’s annual roundup of Canada geese. They do it in early summer because young geese haven’t yet grown their flight feathers and mature geese have molted theirs. The birds can’t fly and they’re relatively easy to herd into a confined space.
During the DNR’s recent roundup at Mason County’s Mountaineer Power Plant, the birds had to be steered more than a quarter mile from a fly ash settling pond to the corral set up to receive them.
Yelling and waving their arms, the drovers spooked the geese into swimming across two other ponds, crossing two levees and a gravel road, and gathering in a grassy field against a chain-link fence. Once there, the birds were easily herded into a temporary poultry-wire pen.
That’s when the “fun” really began.
Experienced goose wranglers jumped into the flock and started grabbing birds. Holding them at the bases of their wings kept the geese from injuring themselves and from flogging their captors. It didn’t do much, however, to prevent crew members from being bitten by the birds’ strong bills or soiled by flying feathers, urine and feces.
The roundup’s goal was to place identification bands on geese that didn’t have them, and to record the ID numbers of already-banded birds.
“We use that information to determine movement and migration patterns,” said Kem Shaw, assistant wildlife biologist for the state’s southwestern counties. “Knowing where the birds come from help us set our hunting-season harvest objectives.”
That knowledge, Shaw said, has already helped West Virginia earn a two-week goose season it otherwise might not have gotten.
“We were able to prove that 96 percent of the geese we have are born right here in the state,” he explained. “At the same time the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was cutting other states’ season, they allowed us to expand ours because so few of our birds are migratory.”
Every year, field staff members in the DNR’s six management districts conduct banding operations on geese and mourning doves. Odd-numbered districts are working on geese this year; even-numbered ones are working on doves. Next year they’ll switch.
Each district is responsible for capturing and banding at least 300 new birds. Shaw’s district got almost half of this year’s quota at the power plant. They got the rest at Point Pleasant’s Krodel Park and at the Kennedy Center YMCA soccer complex in Cabell County.
“The folks at Krodel were concerned that they were getting too many geese there, so they asked us to load them into a truck and take them to one of our wildlife management districts. We figure they’ll stay there until their flight feathers grow back, and then they’ll go wherever they want to go — probably Krodel Park,” Shaw said with a laugh.
He said the birds’ post-molt period is the only practical time to do the roundups.
“It would be almost impossible to collect that many birds if they were capable of flight,” he said. “By doing it at this time of year, we’re pretty much able to herd them like cattle.”
To minimize heat stress on the birds, biologists try to time the operations to end before noon. An experienced crew can process a surprisingly large number of birds in a surprisingly short period of time.
During the power-plant roundup, goose wranglers managed to herd 229 of the big buff-colored birds into the makeshift corral. Shaw and game manager Nick Glotfelty banded and released 144. The other 85 were “recaptures,” and were released after crew members recorded their band numbers. The entire operation, from the building of the corral to the final cleanup, took less than 3 hours.
It was messy, hot and stinky work, but Shaw said he enjoyed it.
“This is one job we do where we see the results immediately,” he said. “It’s dirty work, but it’s fun.”
Spoken like a true wildlife biologist.