Operation Mother Goose
The 1960s was time of change in Seattle. For most of the decade no Canada geese called our waterways home. But in April 1968, the story of the big black and gray birds began to be rewritten. Early in the morning on April 11, 25 men from the Washington state Department of Game and the U.S. Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife gathered at a small island. They were 17 miles up the Columbia River from the nearly complete John Day Dam. Their plan, code named Operation Mother Goose, was simple: crews would powerboat out and collect eggs from islands soon to be flooded by Lake Umatilla.
After the state men collected enough eggs, which they placed in goose down-lined boxes, a helicopter took the bounty to the Kennewick Game Farm, a facility established to raise game birds for hunting. Biologists then determined the stage of embryo development and placed them into incubators.
About 1,000 of the 1,200 eggs collected at the islands over two days, hatched over the next 32 days. Most of the young geese survived at the game farm, although nearly a 100 suffocated under other goslings. Within four weeks, each rapidly growing goose was eating more than a pound of feed each day.
Operation Mother Goose was so named because biologists hoped the goslings could learn from and join wild flocks of geese and soon become fully fledged members of goose society. Workers released the first geese into the wild at McNary Refuge and McNary Game Farm at the confluence of the Snake and Columbia Rivers. Total distribution numbered 900 geese, mostly to state properties near the Columbia, but Mother Goose also delivered her young to Arizona Fish and Game, Idaho Fish and Game, and the city of Spokane.
These entities wanted the honkers because their goose populations had dropped due to overhunting, unrestricted harvesting of eggs, and habitat loss. In Washington, the Johnny Gooseeggs were sharing their crop of goslings because dam construction had cut in half the number of geese along the Columbia and Snake Rivers, the state’s most important nesting areas.
Operation Mother Goose was front page news in Walla Walla, television stations from Portland filmed the operation, and the Associated Press picked up the story and distributed it across the country. What these stories failed to mention is that the goslings from the John Day eggs might have been released in Seattle, and thus may be the progenitors of Seattle’s present day Canada goose population. Or they may not be. The record is not clear.
Prior to the arrival of settlers, Washington state’s Canada geese primarily nested east of the mountains but not nest west of the Cascades. The birds prefer wide open expanses near water where they can see would-be predators, nesting sites protected from predators, and grass for grazing. Geese would not have found such habitat in the forests around Puget Sound and out on the Olympic Peninsula. A November 9, 1937, article in the Tacoma Times though described a mass flight of wild geese that took 14 hours to fly over the city so the big birds clearly didn’t eschew the region.
What official reports about Operation Mother Goose fail to mention is whether any bird were released in Seattle or even in Puget Sound. Curt Hedstrom, Kennewick Game Farm Superintendent in the 1960s, and the man who wrote the official reports, told me that some geese were shipped over the Cascades and released near Lake Washington. He did not know where or how many were released. When I asked him who did it, he responded "I'd rather not name..." He did offer a reason why they might have been released—to establish a flyway where people might have a chance to hunt geese.
We will never be able to definitively state the number of Mother Goose goslings released around Puget Sound, but they would not have stayed if we hadn't created goose nirvana: no predators, lots of shoreline, and acres of wide open territory with a good food source, grass. Plus, people feed them. As you might imagine, not everyone applauded what happened next, a rapid growth of the goose population, which led to another issue. Geese are particularly efficient, walking digestive tracts disguised as birds, defecating between 5.2 and 8.8 times per hour, 28 times a day, or up to 92 times per day in winter.
No matter how or why Canada geese call Seattle and the rest of Puget Sound home, I am okay with them living with us (but wonder if it wouldn’t have been better if we simply hadn’t built the dam and thus didn’t need to collect the egg and had perhaps let Canada geese arrive here on their own) and agree with the sentiments of ornithologist Arthur Cleveland Bent, who wrote of Canada geese in Life Histories of North American Wild Fowl:
As the clarion notes float downward on the still night air, who can resist temptation to rush out of doors and peer into darkness for a possible glimpse at the passing flock, as the shadowy forms glide over our roofs on their long journey? Or, even in daylight, what man is so busy that he will not pause and look upward at the serried ranks of our grandest waterfowl, as their well-known honking notes announce their coming and their going, he knows not whence or whither?
If you are interested in knowing more Operation Mother Goose, I wrote about it for HistoryLink and in my book The Seattle Street-Smart Naturalist: Field Notes from the City, which provided material for this newsletter.