The huge skeins of migrating snow geese have began to pour into southern Illinois this past week. I’ve been spending every day catting around from waterfowl refuge to waterfowl refuge in SW IL checking numbers and watching them steadily increase the past seven days. Both Pyramid State Park and Baldwin Fish and Wildlife Area have seen great increases in the snow goose numbers this week.
My love affair with the snows began with a Christmas tree ornament that hung on my mother's tree each year. A delicate hand painted snow goose winging it's way across a deep blue winter night sky. Recalling the days when a snow goose sighting was rare in IL, recalling the days when my uncles longed to see a snow wing across the sky during their duck hunting excursions.
If you haven't seen these white birds on their annual migration, you are missing one of nature's truly awe inspiring sights. Most Illinois hunters are familiar with the V formations of Canada geese crisscrossing the sky as they rise from each morning from their roosts, noisily making their way to their feeding grounds. As wonderful as that daily show is for hunters and bird watchers – it just doesn’t compare with the huge flocks of snow geese (or light geese if you prefer) that are arriving en masse in Southern Illinois right now.
Canadas tend to leave the roost in family groups, and relatively small formations, but snow geese do not. Instead, they roar skyward in what can only be described as a conflagration of ear splitting calling, chattering, honking, and whistling with wings roaring that can be heard easily a quarter mile away. Often followed by yet another huge en masse exodus..and another.. and another. Literally thousands of the white, grey, and blue geese just erupt skyward in an ear splitting roar.
In the 1970’s, the MCP was estimated at a fairly stable 600,000 birds. Currently the most recent figures put the population in excess of 2.75 million. Yes million. The snow goose population has experienced explosive growth in the last 30 years that seems to be often attributed to the change in farming practices.
The most recent data gleaned from the USFWS 2009 report states that during the 2009 MWS biologists counted 2753400 light geese. A 12% increase over 2008 numbers.
Back in the early 1970s, the nation's farmers embraced the concept of no-till farming practices. By following no till practices, the waste grain that used be tilled under is now left on top of the ground provided large amounts of easy feeding for the migrators.
Snow geese began arriving in Illinois in small but viable numbers in the early 1990s. Most likely they came as a result of overcrowding in their traditional flyways. Once in Illinois the birds quickly learned to take advantage of the perfect habitat available to them.
While this sounds like a waterfowl hunters dream come true – it’s not without problems. Many farmers have lost entire fields of winter wheat to the huge flocks with voracious appetites, and the seemingly explosive population numbers have led to significant concerns about the tundra breeding grounds.
There are now estimated 5 million geese in just the Central and Mississippi flyways — It's an increase of about 300 percent since the mid-70s, according to federal data. Another 1 million snow geese use the Atlantic flyway. This over population causes many scientists to fear the potential risk to the delicate nesting habitats of the snow and light geese.
While the goose population has been growing at a tremendous clip, available habitat has remained constant, and due to the fragile nature of this sub-Arctic land, the habitat is considered by many scientists to be in great danger.
The nesting grounds are for the most part tundra, a few feet of soil covering a layer of permanently frozen earth. Given an incredibly short growing season, plants may take years to recover if they are removed or killed. As goose nest density increases, the plant life the birds rely on is becoming scarce, and it can take over 15 years to renew itself.
"At some point, the whole system will collapse. Basically, the habitat is out of control," said Robert Rockwell, a population biologist with the Department of Ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
However until that happens hunters and bird watchers alike in Illinois can avail themselves of the sight of thousands and thousands of snow geese raucously dropping from the skies throughout the winter months, and hunters especially can continue enjoy the Conservation Order snow goose hunting seasons which will begin the day after the regular Canada goose season ends in each zone and continue through next March 31.