Monday, March 7, 2011

To Breed or Not to Breed - That is the Question

(Photo:  Man making friends with Canada geese at Harlem Meer Saturday.  But, for animals we live with, we actually know precious little about them.)
Last night on 60 Minutes, an interesting story was presented about a man who has devised special camera systems to study and closely photograph polar bears in the Arctic.  This same man had previously raised a duck from birth and later was able to photograph the duck flying almost head to head with himself while he was in some small plane or other flying device.
About a couple of months back, 60 Minutes also did a story on a woman scientist living among elephants in Africa who has recorded complicated elephant language and emotions that had never before been observed or heard by humans.
I believe what ground-breaking reports like these tell us is that we are only beginning to scratch the surface of animal communications, awareness, attachments and yes, even emotions.
Unfortunately, most documentaries like these focus more on the exotic animals of other lands than they do those animals living among us in urban or even rural environments.
When, for example, is the last time we saw an up-close documentary of the common house sparrow, feral cats (or dogs), raccoons, pigeons, mallards, coyotes or yes, Canada geese?
One could of course point to the fabulous and extraordinary Winged Migration documentary film of a few years ago (clips of which are available on You Tube) as beautiful footage of all kinds of migratory birds (including Canada geese) in flight. 
But, the key word is "flight." 
While this movie offered tremendous insight and photography into migratory paths and challenges of birds (and is therefore highly recommended viewing for anyone interested in nature), it did not focus on any particular species of bird, nor did it offer insight into things like communication, awareness, attachments, breeding patterns and emotions.
It would be utterly fascinating were someone able to attach tiny cameras and recorders to  families of Canada geese and then closely monitor their lives for a period of at least a couple of years or preferably longer.
I believe the information and knowledge gained from in-depth studies like these would be incredible and ground-breaking every bit as much as studies done on elephants, polar bears and other exotic animals.
I say these things, not as scientist or expert of any means, but merely as someone who has observed Canada geese coming, going and in one instance, raising young in Central Park last year. 
The more studied the geese over the course of a couple of years, the more fascinating and mysterious they have become. 
And the more questions that have been raised. 
Questions, unfortunately, that are difficult to answer with any certainty based upon limited access to the geese.  All that I write in this blog for example, is based upon speculation and intuition from observations over time.  But, I cannot claim them as provable "fact."
Yesterday, for example, I walked in the rain with my dogs to the Reservoir and over to the Great Lawn in Central Park and Turtle Pond.
Turtle Pond was completely frozen over during the past three months and devoid of bird life.
However, in the past few weeks, the pond has almost completely "defrosted" and both, flocks of mallards and geese have returned to it.  
There were in fact, no geese or mallards at the Reservoir yesterday afternoon. 
However, there were several groups of Northern Shovelers swimming in their funny circles and diving under the water.  
I had not seen Shovelers since a bunch of them were chased out of Harlem Meer in November --  along with the geese, mallards and one swan. 
That was the result of Central Park's "Geese Harassment Program" which unfortunately, not only "harasses" geese, but every other waterfowl that happens to be swimming with them.  
As previously noted, other birds look to the geese for safety and security.  When geese sound the "alarm honk" all the other waterfowl go with them in a kind of panic flight pattern.
And so yes, it was nice to see the Shovelers back again yesterday,  as it was nice to see the geese and mallards back at Turtle Pond.
The question is, how long will they stay (or be allowed to remain) there?
I suspect that (again) many of the geese being seen now are in fact, migratory and are only observed temporarily in places like the Reservoir, North Meadow, Great Lawn or even Turtle Pond.  A few will remain, like the parent geese who raised six goslings last year at Turtle Pond. 
But, most will move on to quieter spots further north to raise young.
Speaking of "breeding," it was interesting last year that for all the mallards and ducks who live at Harlem Meer throughout most of the year, only three mallards produced ducklings last year. 
Strangely enough, though the domestic, flightless ducks, Brad and Angelina have lived at the Meer for at least several years, Angelina did not produce observable young last summer (don't know about previous years).  I wonder if it is because domestic ducklings would have very poor (or even no) survival chances in an urban setting?
I actually don't know the answer to this question or for that matter why only three mallards produced young last year at the Meer or how the ducks "decide" who should breed and who shouldn't.
Of the mallards at the smaller Turtle Pond last year, only two mallards raised ducklings.
Again, the question is, how do they decide?
I believe that most animals breed, 1-- According the environment's capacity to support their numbers and 2-- According to the amount of "predation" upon them.   In other words, the more the species is preyed upon, (by humans or other animals) the more it produces in order to "compensate" for losses.  
The same is actually true of humans when one thinks about it:   People tend to have more babies in areas either ravaged by war or poverty.  Sadly, most of the children don't make it to their tenth birthday. However, in developed areas where most kids comfortably live to adulthood, the parents have fewer babies.
Both the lake at Harlem Meer and Turtle Pond represent fairly peaceful, enriched settings for mallards where hunting of them never occurs and there are few natural predators. 
Is that why, like humans, they have fewer babies?
Answers to questions like these are important to learn, not just out of idle curiosity, but more importantly in terms of our human interactions with and understanding of wildlife
The answers in fact, call into serious question things like "hunting" of wildlife, as well as harassment and even goose egg destruction.
For all the geese flying in and out of Central Park every year and even for the couple of hundred who may remain throughout the year, only two families of goslings were raised by  goose parents last year in CP. 
True, Central Park does have a goose harassment and "egg addling" program in place.
The question is, are these things truly necessary? 
I am not aware, for instance, of any "egg addling" program for mallards.  And yet, they seem to figure out who breeds and who doesn't and their populations are not swelling or overwhelming our parks.
I hope some scientist can figure out how to attach tiny cameras to geese families so we can finally study in-depth and figure out that all the crap we do to these birds (from hunting, to gassing to harrasment) is neither necessary, warranted or quite frankly, ethical.
If the geese are truly "breeding too much" now, its mainly (in my view) because of our never-ending "war" on them.
In that sense, they are as people in war torn, ravaged countries.
Why do these people have so many kids?
Because they have to if any are to survive to adulthood.  -- PCA

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