The Wild Side: Looking forward to a goose for Christmas dinner
My Christmas goose is in the freezer. On opening weekend of duck hunting, I harvested two Canada geese, each one a different subspecies, and brought them home to clean them. My wife excitedly asked that I prepare them as our Christmas geese. For years, I have enjoyed the sport of hunting Canada geese, and have learned to prepare and enjoy the meat. Some time ago, I started researching traditional German Christmas meals, since my family has strong Germanic roots. Traditionally, migratory geese were a prized holiday meal in Germany during the winter months. I decided to try preparing a wild goose for Christmas this year.
In fact, the goose was not just a preferred German holiday feast; many European stories and songs reference the Christmas goose. Today, however, it seems that ham and turkey are most highly prized as holiday meats. To an extent, the goose has lost its stature in the United States, not only as a meal but as a wildlife species. There was a time when geese were highly valued, signaling the changing of the seasons with their spectacular spring and fall migrations. The largest subspecies of Canada goose, the so-called giant Canada goose, was thought to have gone extinct in the middle of the last century. Then in 1962, a small population was discovered by a power plant in southeast Minnesota. Geese from this population were trapped and released in several locations across the nation, where populations grew and flourished. There are an estimated 1.5 million giant Canada geese in the U.S., a wildlife success story.
Today, many giant Canadas are treated as pests. Geese make grassy areas, like parks, golf courses and large lawns unpleasant with their droppings. They eat plants, including grasses, flowers and crops right down to the ground, and one adult goose can generate one to two pounds of droppings a day. For these reasons, they are rounded up in parks and euthanized. Fences are put up to keep them out of beaches and other shoreline areas. Their eggs are sprayed with an oily coating to keep them from hatching. In larger cities, there is an industry devoted to hazing geese, usually with dogs, to make them feel unwelcome and reduce conflicts with property owners. We issue shooting permits to farmers experiencing crop damage, and we have a special extended hunting season, basically extending from Labor Day weekend to late December, to help keep their numbers in check.
I mentioned there are multiple species of Canada geese. I can’t say for certain how many there are, because ornithologists (bird scientists) like to re-classify bird species and subspecies as they gain more information about genetics and other pertinent information. For example, the smallest subspecies, the cackling or Richardson’s Canada goose, was reclassified as its own distinct goose species by the American Ornithologists’ Union in 2004. However, there are still three or four other Canada goose subspecies. The interior Canada goose is one whose population we closely monitor here in the Mississippi flyway. In fact, as a state that has an extended Canada goose season, we are required to put leg bands on a number of local “giants” each year. Harvest information on banded birds helps us determine what percent of harvested birds were hatched in the United States, and how many were hatched near Hudson Bay. The goal of the extra goose season is to keep the population of giants in check while keeping the smaller population of migratory interior Canadas in balance.
I look forward to preparing and enjoying my Christmas goose. For me, it gives me a glance at my ancestral roots. It is also a chance to make a meal from a migratory bird I harvested and set aside for this very occasion. I hope everyone has a chance to enjoy wildlife this holiday season. Consider participating in the 113th Christmas Bird Count! Go to birds.audubon.org/christmas-bird-count to sign up.
Jeremy Holtz is a wildlife biologist with the Wisconsin DNR and writes a weekly column in the Star Journal. To contact him, call (715) 365-8999.