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Snow-ing geese

On a rainy day last week, Bubba Simmons inspected his 5,500-acre farm near Hollandale in the Delta to see if his land was again being compromised. And, it was.

The “vandals” are snow geese, whose numbers have been exploding since the mid- to late-1980s. It is a common sight in the Delta to see fields covered with thousands of the white waterfowl, which can stand nearly three feet tall, have a wingspan of approximately five feet and weigh nearly 10 pounds.

Tens of thousands of geese at a time populate farm land throughout Mississippi.

Tens of thousands of geese at a time populate farm land throughout Mississippi.

For many, the flocks inspire awe. However, they inspire other emotions among farmers.

“Okay, here they are — maybe 6,000 or 8,000,” said Simmons on his cell phone as he made a tour of his farm Feb. 1. A minute later, he said, “Oh, here’s another flock — probably another 6,000 to 8,000 birds.” A third field was also full, their calls easily heard when Simmons held his phone out the window of his truck.

“Yeah, I probably have 20,000 birds here right now,” Simmons said. “They are tearing everything up — again.”

Ironically, one of the factors cited for snow geese’s explosive growth is agriculture. Expanding operations and new techniques such as no-till farming have created the ideal wintering place for the birds. Formerly over-flying the Delta and wintering in marshes on the Coast, snow geese are now landing on the rich cropland and are causing widespread damage.

The feeding habits of snow geese are especially problematic. Unlike other waterfowl such as Canada geese, which only graze fields, snow geese grub underground, taking plants at their root and leaving fields pockmarked with holes and wallows. What they do not eat, they trample, which results in plant mortality or stunted growth/lower yield.

How much this is costing Mississippi farmers is not fully known. Neither Mississippi State University’s Extension Service nor the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks have damage figures.

But Simmons said he estimates repairing fields from snow geese depredations costs approximately $20 per acre.

“And that’s conservative. That’s probably the low end,” Simmons said. He added that he has no idea what the cost is of other problems associated with snow geese, such as the spread of noxious weeds from one field to another.

When asked if there was any benefit from the immense flocks, Simmons said they are a free source of fertilizer, but added, “That hardly offsets the destruction they cause.”

Farmers are doing what they can to try and deter the flocks. They use noisemakers and drive vehicles across their fields in an attempt to flush them. But this is stopgap at best, and many flocks come in at night while farmers are sleeping.

There is only one viable option currently available to control the wintering snow geese — hunting. The bag limit for snow geese in Mississippi is 20 birds per day, the maximum allowed by federal regulations. In addition, there is a later conservation order hunt. Hunters are allowed to use normally illegal aids such as electronic calls, and there is no bag limit.

However, the birds are wary and difficult to hunt. Also, there have been reports of roadside hunting, which is illegal, and hunters shooting birds without the landowner’s permission, creating safety concerns and causing more damage when they drive across fields.

Ed Penny, waterfowl program coordinator at the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks, said the cull from hunting is showing “some positive effects.” But he admitted hunting alone is not keeping snow geese numbers at healthy levels. Even natural checks are showing limited effect.

“I have been to the Rainwater Basin in Nebraska and have seen tens of thousands of dead snow geese from an outbreak of avian cholera,” Penny said. “That sounds like a lot, but there were probably two million or so birds there. It barely put a dent in the flocks.”

He said the U.S. snow goose population is pegged at eight to 10 million, but added that it “could be twice that number.”

He said until a solution is found to reduce the number of adult, breeding females — and their eggs — the overpopulation of snow geese will continue.

While the enormous flocks are causing sleepless nights for farmers, wildlife researchers are concerned about the impact on the birds themselves and other wildlife. The wintering snow geese are squeezing out other waterfowl, taking away prime feeding habitat for different, less destructive species. The large concentrations of birds also puts flocks at higher risk of communicable diseases such as avian cholera.

They are inflicting severe damage on their northern breeding grounds, too. Penny said they are destroying the tundra, leaving them and other wildlife battling to stay alive. Scientists are still not sure just how long it could take the tundra to recover from the destruction.

Some draconian measures have been offered. Penny said dropping soapy water on the birds would cause them to lose their insulation and freeze to death.

“That’s hardly a plan, not a solution” Penny said. “Every animal rights organization in the world would scream — and rightfully so.”


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