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The Surprisingly Human Side Of Geese

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I’m walking by a small, man-made lake in the East End crowded by several generic-looking office buildings. To my right, there’s a busy side-street with the occasional honking car.And to my left, there’s a flock of about 20 honking geese, and they are members of a local population that -- in keeping with national trends -- is only increasing.For many urban and suburban dwellers, the fact that the local goose population is growing, probably doesn’t come as a surprise. You can find flocks of them in neighborhoods, office parks, baseball fields -- and maybe even your own backyard.“To tell the truth, the main factor is we have provided an abundance of habitat for Canada geese,” says Rosemary Bauman, the forest restoration coordinator at Beargrass Creek State Nature Preserve and a nature educator.“(This is) through our efforts to modify the landscape agriculturally, or just simply creating large patches of grassy areas because geese actually graze on the grass,” she says.Bauman explains that in most urban and suburban areas, there is ample built green space and oftentimes bodies of water -- some natural, some not.This provides a place for the geese to nest and graze that is often free from predators like wolves, coyotes and human hunters.“And they have just responded as any population would with becoming more and more abundant,” Bauman says.The fact that there are more geese in Louisville may not be exciting news.I mean, let’s face it, if you were to make a list of the “most lovable animals,” geese probably wouldn’t make it into the top 10. They’re territorial, a little messy and kind of loud. But it turns out, when you take a look at how geese interact with each other -- they share a lot of similarities with humans.

University of Kentucky biologist David Westneat studies sexual and social behavior in birds.“So birds are similar to humans in that they are basically socially monogamous,” Westneat says. “So one male and one female form a breeding unit.”Westneat lays out the social structure of a typical goose family: You have a male and female adult -- who, once paired off, typically remain monogamous for life.“Sometimes divorces happen -- we actually call it ‘divorce,’” Westneat says. “It just means that a pairbond that was there for at least one breeding attempt breaks apart and both individuals pair with new individuals. But in geese that is relatively rare compared to, say, the sparrows that I study.”And for geese, being monogamous has its advantages. The more experience they have parenting together, the better they get at it -- which results in a higher rate of survival for their offspring.A typical breeding attempt can result in a nest of five to six goslings, which is called a “clutch.”“And as soon as the young hatch,  the pairs breeding in a local area will congregate around food like a golf course or protection which is a body of water,” Westneat says. “And social neighborhoods form.”This also has its survival advantages: There are more adult geese to chase off potential predators.According to Rosemary Bauman, goslings stay with their parents for a pretty long time -- at least in the bird world.“One full season, so that means they migrate with the parents,” Bauman says. “So this is important because, I guess you could say, the flock that migrates together stays together.”Well, up to a point.When the geese -- now, all fully-grown -- return from migration they can get a bit territorial. It’s every gander for himself when it comes to finding an ideal mate, and then the pairs have to stake out prime real-estate for nesting.Though honestly, that makes them seem all the more human.

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