March 25–April 1, 1999


Goose Stepping

By Rob Laymon

I did not start the war with the geese.They started it. I know they started it. The briefest glance into their mean little goose eyes proves it. They try to look innocent. But the trained eye, the skillful eye, can see. Just as the goose body turns to scramble out of your path, the goose expression tells everything: “We have foiled you again, Kelly Drive user,” it says. “We have fouled your path.” You hear the tiny chuckle. Then you get another little gift of goose pate.

Your typical goose is founded upon evil.

I do not stop to argue, for I am bigger than they. I skate the drive often, and I know what they’re doing. I see their planning and preparation. I see the skill with which they slowly, imperceptibly, reduce the drive to a wasteland. After they have taken over, do not doubt they will raise a huge bronze goose statue to commemorate themselves. Beside Grant.

The groups of Canada geese appeared first on the west side of the river, flocking in dumb cunning across the lawns, trying to look nonchalant. Around certain parking lots they denuded the grounds. Where there used to be green lawn there is now naked bank, with fissures of runoff reaching down to the river, and speckled all over with the gooey goose residue.

Now they have gotten bold, and come to the east side to do their work. They glance at me in confidence as I skate by. Menace glows from their little goose faces. They seem to say, “Yes, we are here eating grass. We intend to eat all the grass. What are you going to do about it?”

No one knows for sure how many geese populate the drive. Keith Russell, an ornithologist and assistant editor of The Birds of North America, with offices at the Academy of Natural Sciences, says hundreds.

“They are a problem sometimes,” Russell says. “People obviously have to watch out not to slip on their droppings. They hang around just about anywhere there is grass or water—golf courses, city reservoirs.”

Hundreds, Russell says. Millions, I say. In the center of the Schuylkill River is an island, Peters Island, that serves as a refuge for them—as if they needed any more refuge than the love of soft-minded people. I can’t say there aren’t huge goose reserves held at the ready here. To this island they retreat each night to lay their further schemes.

Their eggs they lay on the drive. March begins their breeding season, Russell says. So their numbers should begin to fall as they drive competitors from their nesting grounds.

But as years have passed, their numbers have risen. Russell, who conducts an annual bird census here, has noticed the change. Forty years ago, the geese wouldn’t have spent an entire winter in the city. But they have learned to adapt. They strut about the drive with complete goose aplomb, fearing no man, disdaining even to scramble aside when humans approach. They waddle, poop, ruffle, waddle, poop. Automobile traffic is nothing to them. And they eat everything in sight.

“In all my years here I have never heard anyone complain about the geese,” says Tom Doyle, spokesman for the Fairmount Park Commission.

“This time of year you’ll see exposed dirt along the drive anyway. It has nothing to do with the geese. We have a pretty stable population. We even have volunteers who feed them.”

That, in my opinion, is an excessively pro-goose perspective. It is just the sort of thinking to empower an eventual goose triumph. But I won’t be taken in.

In fact, this may be only the tip of the goose iceberg. The snow goose population has exploded, Russell says. In the Arctic, snow geese have eaten so much they have caused changes in the whole vegetation structure there.

And what about those migratory birds? Is it far-fetched to say they, too, will find in Philadelphia the warm hospitality we hope to show Republicans?

Rob Laymon is a Philadelphia freelance writer. If you would like to respond to this Slant, or have one of your own, contact City Paper news editor Howard Altman, 123 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106 or via e-mail,