Banding Geese at Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge

My daughter Taylor is the Youth Conservation Corps leader at Moosehorn National Refuge. When she mentioned banding geese I was all over it.

“Can I help?”

“I think so. Call Maury or Ray.” Maury Mills manages the Woodcock Singing Ground Survey I’ve been participating in for so long, and Ray Brown allowed me to go out to band woodcock this year.

Banding geese is quite an event. Gear has to be gathered and loaded into trucks and the 15 passenger van Taylor uses for YCC, radios checked, and paddlers have to work out their plan. There were eight or nine canoes and kayaks involved in the round up.

Taylor and some of the YCC members set up netting along the edge of the dike on Charlotte Road while Ray Brown had help setting up net along the shore. Ray took one for the team when he loaned his waders to someone and walked in water up to his chest. Unfortunately, I don’t have pictures. We stomped down grass and iris to smooth out a small plot along shore where the pen was set up. If all went according to plan the geese would swim in, walk up the bank and into the pen, and someone would close them in. That was the plan.

I went to the dike with YCC. We spread out the length of the dike, laying on our stomachs, not peeking up to see where the geese might be. If they spotted us they might be scared away. There were a couple of radios between ten of us but I wasn’t near one of them.

On my stomach in the tall grass, surrounded by goose shit (it’s the appropriate word), I wonder how many ticks are crawling on me. Horseflies buzzed my head, landed on my nose and managed to get into my shirt, biting me once. If the horsefly can get there are probably ticks crawling on me But there weren’t.

One sentence from an episode of North Woods Law ran through my mind many times. “Now I know what goose shit tastes like.” I didn’t want to know.

Honk honk honk honk honk. The sound I associate with autumn. Two geese flew over the dike. No bling for them today. Banding is done at this time of year because the geese are molting and most have lost flight feathers.

Someone stood at the far end of the dike. The geese and paddlers were in sight. The next person stood, then the next. Our instructions were to stand up slowly when the geese were in front of us, walk slowly toward the pen, make no sudden moves, not wave our arms, and don’t bunch up. If you bunch up you leave empty spaces for the geese to escape. One by one people stand but I can’t hear the radio and we can’t yell to each other so I don’t know when to stand. Are the geese in front of me now? If I stand too soon I might scare them.

“Mom! Mom! Stand up!” Question answered. What a sight! Men and women in canoes and kayaks were spread out over the water, carefully, slowly herding 54 Canada geese to the pen. So far so good.

One goose came to shore to make a waddle for it but one of the young women in YCC got a hold of it. She walked the dike with that goose in one hand, carrying it like a shopping bag. “You look like you’ve done this before,” I said. She has, with domestic geese. With two fingers between the wings, thumb on one side, two fingers on the other side, the goose relaxed and hung out, feet bobbing a little with each step she took.

We zigged and zagged a little as two more geese tried to escape. “Run,” someone yelled from a canoe, and I ran. I caught up to the goose I hadn’t seen heading for shore, ready and willing to put my “how to tackle a goose” training to work. It stayed in the water.

One goose baffled me. It kept its neck in the water, head barely on the surface, body flattened. I asked Tyler Cochran, a YCC member, if it was a goose or a beaver. With the sun reflecting off the water and the goose headed in the wrong direction, I wasn’t sure what I was seeing. “It’s a goose. He’s trying to get away.”

Geese are herded into this holding pen while they wait to be banded.

Geese are herded into this holding pen.

Fifty-four Canada geese were herded into the makeshift pen. The first person in a canoe behind them jumped out and closed the pen. Success! I was surprised at how well this went.

smart gooseThis is the goose I thought might be a beaver. He’s between the two posts, close to the one on the left. He was the last bird in. He dove several times, coming up the last time too close to a technician who was able to pluck him from the water. Turns out this goose, a male, knew what was happening. He’d already been banded. He was taken to the biologists to have the information on his band recorded and was turned loose.

I was eager to start handling the geese. I made my way to the pen and got a quick lesson in how to carry a goose like a shopping bag. It’s not too awkward once you get the hang of it. We moved as many geese as we had crates for, them moved the crates into the shade. Let the banding begin.

Maury and Ray showed us what to do. Someone took notes. Male or female, this year’s hatch or older, and the band number were recorded. It takes a lot of effort to band and record information on 54 geese. Someone has to open bands and hand them out, in numerical order. At times there were four or five of us banding at once.

Adrianna Gorsky, a biology technician from Virgina, prepares a goose for banding.

Adrianna Gorsky, a biology technician from Virgina, prepares a goose for banding.

You pick up a goose and secure its wings snugly so it doesn’t beat you, find a place to sit, tuck the head under a wing, flip the goose upside down with its tail away from you, and hold it between your thighs. Pretty simple in words. If you do this right or the bird is relatively calm, you don’t get bitten. Or scratched. If the bird panics you get bitten or scratched, sometimes leaving you bruised or bloody. Or both. I acquired three bruises. It doesn’t hurt much but since the geese were inclined to bite and hang on they left good bruises.

I was able to do some of everything. It took three geese before I got the band on right the first time. The edges must line up perfectly and not overlap. A smooth band doesn’t irritate the goose’s leg but a rough edge can irritate and even cut skin. The bands are put on so that when the goose is stand the band is right side up, making it easy for birders to read the number.

Maury Mills, wildlife biologist, prepares a goose for banding.

Maury Mills, wildlife biologist, prepares a goose for banding.


Collins applies a band to this young goose.

Collins applies a band to this young goose.

I learned from Collin that geese can hatch with so much time between nests that some goslings are still fuzzy (we had three) while others are fully feathered and look almost identical to mature geese.

Taylor determines the sex of this goose.

Taylor determines the sex of this goose.

It took about two hours to do the banding. Each goose is released in the water after banding. They shake it off, literally, and swim away.

It was a great morning! Thanks to the staff at Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge for letting me tag along again. I filled out my volunteer application and will be back to pitch in with several projects.


Robin Follette

About Robin Follette

Maine Press Association award winner, 2013. Robin's Outdoors, Bangor Daily News, third place in Sports blogs. I grew up with a fishing pole in my hand and have always loved the outdoors. From gardening to hunting and fishing, kayaking, camping, hiking and foraging, most of my time is spent outdoors. I teach outdoor skills as a volunteer instructor for Hooked On Fishing - Not On Drugs and Becoming an Outdoors-Woman. Pro-staff at The Limb Grip. My personal blog is here. I'm currently working on my first book, a collection of short stories based on my outdoors experiences.