Birds of a Feather

Geese in the road on campus
The geese on campus typically have 14-20 goslings every spring.

While not the official mascot of USC Upstate, the Canada goose might well be considered its unofficial one.

The campus’ resident flock is known and (mostly) loved by students, faculty, and staff, who look forward every spring to seeing the fluffy goslings floating behind their parents on the Rotary Peace Park pond.

If you’ve ever wondered about the habits of these feathered denizens, perhaps while stopped in your car as the flock ambles across University Way, here are a few things to know, with the caveat that banding and tracking the birds would be necessary to know some details definitively.

The Upstate flock likely has other nearby hangouts. Professor Vincent Connors, who teaches a birding class every spring at Upstate, says the flock is probably the same one you’ve seen at the pond in front of Milliken & Co. and even on the greens at local golf courses. Connors says the birds often spend the day eating on manicured lawns near small watering holes, then head to a lake for the evening, where there’s more protection from predators.

The geese are probably non-migratory. In the past 15 to 30 years, geese migration has changed, Connors says. While there are still some large flocks that migrate to feed on field stubble, many just stay put, especially if they are in an area where food is plentiful year round, as it is in the South. “We’ve also lost a lot of the major predators that would drive geese to migrate out of an area,” Connors notes. Bears, wolves and foxes now pose little threat. Connors says one other possible reason for the change is that some geese may no longer know how to migrate. At one time, geese had dwindled so dramatically that captive breeding flocks were formed to boost the population. The effort was successful, but because migration is a learned behavior, the young released into the wild lacked the knowledge to pass on to future generations.

Bread isn’t good for geese. It may seem like harmless fun to toss bread to the geese, but it’s actually bad for them, Connors says. Bread fills the geese with empty calories, and prevents them from getting the energy they need from their main natural food source, grass. Fortunately, it’s unlikely the Upstate geese are relying on bread as a dietary staple, given how plentiful lawns and golf courses are in the area.

Geese aren’t faithful partners. Genetic tests of nestlings have found multiple parents, Connors says. Geese pairs do share child-rearing activities, however, if not always equitably. A goose will sometimes dump its eggs into another mother’s nest, “which is why you might see a female with 15 goslings,” he says.

Geese on the pond
Goslings are often picked off by snapping turtles that live in the Peace Park pond.

Coyotes are the main threat to geese. Geese are ground-nesting birds, which makes them vulnerable to the opportunistic coyote. Goslings can also be picked off by snapping turtles that live in the ponds. Connors, whose class conducts a count every spring, says, “We typically have anywhere from 14 to 20 goslings at any one time, but at the end of May, we might be down to only seven or eight.”

That V formation is intentional. Flying in a V is aerodynamically efficient, Connors explains. Each bird creates an uplift for the bird directly behind as it flaps its wings. The lead bird expends the most energy, since it has no assistance, but when it gets tired, it falls back in the formation to allow a new goose to lead.