Canada geese are once again taking to the sky. They've been molting, bound to the ground. But now they can spread their noble wings, rise into the air - and get themselves sucked into the engine of an airplane full of innocent New Yorkers.
There's a war going on between the goose-lovers and the goose-exterminators. I may have already given this away, but I am on the side of the exterminators.
Anybody who hasn't been living in a cave for the last couple of years knows that in January 2009, a flock of geese ran into a US Airways plane that had just taken off from LaGuardia Airport, forcing the plane to land in the Hudson. Ever since we have spent our official American celebrations applauding Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, the most popular old guy in the country.
It has also caused us to rethink our position on geese. There are about 20,000 Canada geese living in the region. While they're far from the only birds who run into airplanes, their size and their tendency to fly in large groups makes them a special danger. In 1995, an Air Force surveillance plane ran into a flock in Alaska and crashed, killing all 24 people on board.
After Flight 1549, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the Wildlife Service, agreed that Canada geese could be rounded up from city-owned properties within five miles of LaGuardia or Kennedy Airport. It's since been expanded to seven miles.
This year, while the geese were molting and earthbound over the past few weeks, official goose-killers working with the Department of Agriculture rounded up about 1,200 and took them off to be euthanized. There are other ways to control the goose population - you can oil their eggs so they won't hatch, or hire a border collie to shoo them off to a different location. But just grabbing the suckers and gassing them is by far the simplest.
Not everybody agrees this is a good idea. After several hundred geese were removed from Prospect Park, the Brooklyn Paper, in an editorial entitled Meadows of Shame, said it was "a horrifying crime that not only calls into question our abilities as stewards of the earth but also our core values as a species."
And - irony of ironies - the one place where the geese are not being rounded up at all is the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, which is virtually right next door to JFK. It's run by the National Park Service, which has refused to allow goose collectors from the Department of Agriculture to round any of them up.
"We have not documented the fact that these geese are in fact a danger to the flying public," said Dave Avrin, a National Park Service official.
"The safety of the flying public is important to the National Park Service," he added. "But in order to take a major action such as the removal of the geese we have to go through a compliance process."
The fight here is the sort of bureaucratic battle that haunts the nightmares of the Tea Party. The federal employees at the Refuge, which is part of the Gateway National Recreation Area, say their mission is to protect wildlife. And who knows if it's true that geese are a plane safety hazard? And besides, you need an environmental impact statement.
"I wouldn't say we have differences with the Department of Agriculture," Avrin said. "I would say that we are given different missions. We respect each others' mission, and we are working it out."
That's nice, but basic problem is that people who go into the Wildlife Refuge business tend to be on the side of the birds.
To be fair, they have one important point. The geese that live in the refuge are part of that population of year round residents, who can also be seen along the side of the roadways, in parks that have lakes, on golf courses, baseball fields, etc. etc. etc. But the ones that flew into Flight 1549 were migratory. Just passing through. None of the culling activities will have any effect on them.
Also, in a perfect world, maybe they should have put the airports somewhere else. And maybe the FAA should demand that planes have more goose-resistant engines.
I don't care. Airplane safety is the most persuasive argument for goose removal, but there are plenty of others. The resident geese are junk animals. There are way too many of them. While there was a time long ago when they were in danger of extinction, now they're all over the place. They live a long time, reproduce like crazy and - most important - they defecate all over the place. One goose produces a pound of poop per day. It poisons the parks, the beaches, the ponds, the Little League fields, the golf courses.
Personally, I don't care about the golf courses. If the geese only lived on golf courses I'd say let them be, although the people who play the game tend to be exactly the sort of people who have the power to make feathered inconveniences go away.
If you are against killing the geese and you're a strict vegetarian who doesn't wear leather and refuses to swat a mosquito because mosquitoes have to live, too, then I respect your opinion. I have to warn you that you are part of a very tiny minority of the population that I am planning to ignore until all the fast food restaurants are restricting their offering to veggieburgers, but still, good for you for having strong convictions.
The rest of the goose-protectors are being disingenuous. You can't be serene about the extermination of millions of chickens a year and then get weepy when the surplus geese meet the same fate as the meals at Colonel Sanders.
New Yorkers in particular should be rational on this subject. We are huge about killing off unwanted critters. Mice, rats. Raccoons in Central Park. They're all health hazards, but so are the geese. The only difference is that the geese look nice. As long as you're not walking near them.
Park Service official Avrin expects the problem to be resolved by the time the geese go into molting mode next year. Stay tuned.