The spring snow goose migration has arrived in southern Iowa. If you’ve not yet seen the spectacle for yourself, it’s a trip worth taking. Simply stated, it is a bird show without equal.
The numbers defy description. On the best days, wavy lines of migrators form a lacework pattern that fill the skies and stretch from horizon to horizon. Once they descend, feeding flocks are measured by the acre rather than by hundreds or thousands.
But it is the sound of the geese that will impress you most. A distinctive high pitched yelping that, when multiplied by many thousands, will leave an indelible print on your memory as well as on your ear drums. Spend an entire day with the geese, and the unmistakable sound will continue to echo within your head well into the night.
Although some migration will occur statewide, the vast majority of snow geese will fly across southwestern Iowa. Located just below the Iowa border near Mound City, Mo., the Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge offers a final staging area as geese push toward remote arctic nesting grounds. As the birds forsake Gulf Coast wintering areas and head north, Squaw Creek goose buildups can be rapid and dramatic. A world class example occurred last week as the snow goose count jumped from an already incredible 300,000 to a record busting 1.4 million. From there it didn’t take long until flocks began invading southern Iowa, especially along traditional flight paths of the Missouri River.
During recent decades, snow geese have exhibited a number of amazing changes. Most significant is that populations have more than tripled during the past 30 years, resulting in severe damage to fragile arctic nesting areas. Current numbers have increased to a point where snow geese not only threaten their own survival, say scientists, but are also having a negative impact on dozens of arctic nesting bird species.
The over abundance has called for extreme measures. Every year since 1999, hunters have been allowed to shoot snow geese during spring migration. The original goal of the emergency provision was to reduce snow goose populations by 50 percent. Although a decade of spring seasons have dramatically increased snow goose harvest, the measure is failing to achieve its goal. The good news is that increased hunting pressure has effectively reduced the survival of adult females nesting in colonies along the southern Arctic’s Hudson Bay lowlands. Unfortunately, survival of females in the northern arctic — which is where more than 80 percent of snow geese nest — appears to be essentially unchanged as breeding colonies continue to expand.
If there is one important lesson that snow geese have learned and learned well, it is that there is safety in numbers. When my friends and I first began hunting the birds during the mid-1960s, snow geese migrated across Iowa in small flocks that usually consisted of anywhere from a dozen on up to 20 or so birds. The migration was well distributed statewide, and geese stopped wherever there were suitable marshes. Goose behavior was much different then, and most hunters regarded snow geese as being just plain stupid. Tame and trusting, the flocks came eagerly to decoys — which in most cases meant a dozen or less floating counterfeits. Goose hunters who employed more than one or two dozen floaters were considered hard core professionals.
How times change! Today, most snow geese are hunted in harvested grain fields and spreads employing anything less than a thousand or more decoys is considered lacking. Instead of traveling in small groups, migrating flocks now arrive in waves containing thousands, if not tens of thousands, of birds. Instead of setting their wings at the first squeak of the call, modern-day snows warily scrutinize decoy spreads while hanging suspended at several hundred feet. Whenever a group of inexperienced juveniles attempts to break ranks and parachute earthward, adults do their best to call them back into the flock. The tactic usually works. But youngsters who fail to heed the warning pay the price.
These days, snow geese never come easy. In spite of unprecedented hunter mobility, superior equipment, increasingly realistic decoys, and even electronic caller playing taped recordings of live birds, snow geese continue to become increasingly difficult to bag. To lure a flock within 20 yards or less of decoys currently represents the ultimate waterfowling challenge. No bird anywhere is harder for human hunters to deceive — and I‘m including wild turkeys in that statement.
The eminent challenges of preserving fragile arctic breeding grounds while literally protecting the snow goose from itself are tasks that have left scientists, wildlife managers, and hunters scratching their heads. Only one fact remains certain. When it comes to snow geese, no one is calling them stupid anymore.
Good hunting, good fishing, and good luck. Hank.
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