Migratory Birds Are Stopping In Northern Illinois, And Canada Geese Are Staying Year-Round

Jun 22, 2018

Birds are a common sight throughout Northern Illinois, with many species coming through the area as part of seasonal migration. Some are just stopping by, but others have become more permanent residents. WNIJ’s Chase Cavanaugh takes a look at ways to deal with them.

Many different types of birds make their way across Illinois. They range from raptors like bald eagles to waterfowl like the great blue heron. Frank Ostling, a District Wildlife Biologist with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, says he’s seen several groups of waterfowl that aren’t as common to the area around Lee, Ogle, and Whiteside Counties.

“We’ve seen and documented the migrations of whooping cranes," he said. "There are several sandhill cranes that pass through this area as well and, in fact, breed in this area."

Frank Ostling is District 3 Wildlife Biologist for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
Credit Frank Ostling

But Oregon unexpectedly has become an attractive area for white pelicans. Ostling says they’re drawn to an abundant food supply in the Rock River.

“They’re fish eaters so, if there’s plentiful fish around, it’s going to attract their attention," he said. "Over the last ten years, it seems to be a growing interest on their part.”

The pelicans typically show up in spring as part of what Ostling says is a large migration route known as a flyway. He says the pelicans seen in Oregon are making their way from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.

The migrating pelicans have had no known conflict with humans, and they have become a minor tourist attraction for the area. But the same can’t be said for Canada geese.  They're ostensibly migratory, but many flocks have decided to settle in areas like DeKalb on a year-round basis, according to Nick Barber, Assistant Professor of Biology at Northern Illinois University.

“We’ve essentially created an environment that’s a really good habitat for them," he said. "Geese like open grassy lawns next to bodies of water, like the retention ponds we have around here. We’ve created the ideal habitat for them. They love it. They can feed there, they can nest there, and we end up with a lot of geese in that environment.”

Nick Barber is an Assistant Professor of Biology at Northern Illinois University.
Credit Chase Cavanaugh/WNIJ

Several other factors, such as the agricultural landscape of northern Illinois, help the geese survive an entire year.

“After farmers have harvested, they can feed in the corn stubble," Barber said, "and all those young who were born that year can fatten up before winter and probably have higher winter survival as a result of that."

And then there’s a unique quirk of goose anatomy.

“Most birds that eat plants (also) eat seeds or other fruits or insects," he said, "but they (geese) can actually eat grass. They don’t get a lot of nutrition out of it, so they have to eat a lot of it, which is why we see so much waste on sidewalks around places where they’re feeding."

These adaptations mean that geese and humans often come into contact.

Sandy Woltman (left) is Director of Operations for Oaken Acres, a wildlife rehabilitation center in Sycamore. Kathy Stelford (right) founded the facility.
Credit Chase Cavanaugh/WNIJ

“Geese commonly, they don’t necessarily fly across the street, because that expends a lot of energy," said Sandy Woltman, Director of Operations at Oaken Acres wildlife rehabilitation center in Sycamore, "but they’d rather walk across the street. And geese seem to think that cars should stop for them."

Woltman says it's important for people to be aware of geese in the roads, particulary when they have goslings in tow.

“So if they were to fly and leave their babies behind, they would be prey for another species," she explained, "so for them to get from one feeding source to another or from one water source or pond to another, they’re having to walk."

When geese and other birds are injured in human-populated-areas, Oaken Acres Founder Kathy Stelford says people often report them to animal control.

“They’ll get calls, especially if the animal is a public health and safety threat," she said, "like it’s an animal in a highly populated area that’s injured and they’re afraid somebody might come upon it and get bitten or try to touch it or something like that."

The most common types of injuries are cat attacks and birds hitting windows, but Stelford says there are many other hazards. She recounts one injury to a bald eagle that's currently in their care.

“Sandy went out with one of our other staff members to rescue him out in the Shabbona Lee wind-farm field," she said. "His wing was dangling just by some little bits of flesh and he had to have it amputated.”

Whatever the injury, Woltman says Oaken Acres has the same goal.

“To be able to bring it to somewhere to be able to provide them with professional care. Whether it be a broken wing or broken leg, to heal that injury, release them back out into the wild and give them a second chance.”

Canada geese are among several species protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. The law makes it illegal to hunt the birds without special permits or, as Stelford notes, interfere with their young.

“It is illegal for anyone to move a nest, move the eggs, interfere at all with her nesting, and if you do move them, you’ve basically doomed the eggs," she said. "The parents won’t move with the nest and they won’t be incubated.”

The law ensures Canada geese won’t go the way of the passenger pigeon, but its restrictions can pose difficulties for communities that want be rid of “nuisance birds.” Geese that decide to become non-migratory ensure that status passes on to their young because the goslings won't know the flight paths. 

Faye Burlo is volunteer coordinator for the Goose Management Program at Atwood Park, which is part of the Rockford Park District.
Credit Faye Burlo

Faye Burlo is volunteer coordinator for the Rockford Park District’s Goose Management Program. Since the Migratory Bird Treaty prevents directly harming the geese without a special permit, her volunteers have needed to use more creative methods -- like approaching the birds with leashed dogs.

“A lot of times, when the dogs come up, the geese will right away start honking," she said. "They’ll start bobbing their heads, and they’ll fly off."

The goal is to make an area unattractive to flocks of geese so that the birds will move on. Burlo’s group also uses small, remote controlled vehicles, fake animal cutouts, and even drink mix. 

“The artificial flavoring that’s used in grape Kool-aid and other grape-flavored products is actually an irritant to their senses," she said. "So their eyes, their sinuses, things like that. It can be an irritant to their stomach without actually making them sick.”

Methods like the Kool-Aid only work in small areas, and Burlo says the key is to be vigilant.

“It’s just constantly changing up the time that I’m going to each location, the order I’m going to each location, what part of that location I’m starting at, that kind of thing," she said, "because they do adapt, they do learn.”

And while Burlo’s efforts haven’t convinced the geese to abandon the park, she says the program is having an effect since it started in 2001.

“Back then, on average, about 1,500 Canadian Geese were being moved at a time," she said. "This has cut down over the years, so the program is helping.”

While some people view geese as a nuisance, biologist Nick Barber says they -- and some other birds -- are something we may just have to get used to.

“There’s a lot of animals we call ‘human commensals,’" Barber said. "They just do well in the kinds of environments we create. Robins, pigeons, mourning doves, red-winged blackbirds. They thrive in the sort of environments that we create and do well in ourselves, and those are the species we see becoming very numerous in our world today.”