Wildlife

Survival in the suburbs: Karsten Wall on the magnificence of the modern Canadian goose

Director and writer of the documentary Modern Goose shares his insights into the lifestyle of an average Canadian goose living in our country’s suburbs

  • Published May 02, 2024
  • Updated May 03
  • 830 words
  • 4 minutes
A Canadian goose overlooks an urban Winnipeg landscape. (Photo: The National Film Board of Canada)
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Canada geese have become well-adapted to Canadian suburbs. With fewer natural predators and plenty of discarded food to eat, they are now a ubiquitous feature of suburban life. Whether in a Walmart parking lot, McDonald’s drive-thru or sleeping in an empty Staples flowerpot, these geese are everywhere.

(Photo: The National Film Board of Canada)
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Modern Goose, a National Film Board of Canada production, is a comical, empathetic and enlightening glimpse into the daily life of a suburban goose. Directed by Karsten Wall and produced by Alicia Smith (NFB), the documentary shows the segment of the Canadian goose’s yearly migration cycle where they live out their geese lives in the suburbs.

Canadian Geographic sat down with Wall to discuss the inspiration for Modern Goose and his insights into the routines, lifestyle and habitat of one of our country’s signature birds.

On how suburban development affects geese

The prairies are pretty vast, and that’s because there’s nothing holding back the city’s sprawl. City developers have decided that spreading outwards instead of building inwards is more profitable, and that leads to ugly suburb development and the need to create a bunch of green spaces, golf courses, and retaining ponds—cheap imitations of the natural world.

There’s a lot of ponds that would be dead, stagnant water without the fountains and manmade irrigation ditches that sometimes turn into more natural wetlands, but for the most part, it’s just a place to catch runoff. The geese have found this kind of environment to be optimal for them because there’s lots of grass, there’s lots of water and in the city, they’re more protected from predators.

They make a bit of a trade-off. I’m sure there are a lot of parts of the city they don’t like, but for them, it’s actually safer for their young as far as predators go. 

Canadian geese in a suburban parking lot. (Photo: The National Film Board of Canada)
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On wetlands and pollution

The Canadian geese survive long enough to maintain and raise their young, but I’m sure they’re not as healthy as they would be if they’re living in natural environments. I’ve seen a lot downtown. I’ve seen a lot of dying geese, and I couldn’t figure out what it was about, but it was kind of right downtown, right where all the water merges at the forks, and there’s tons of boat traffic. There’s tons of sewer runoff, there’s tons of garbage. A lot of waterfowl and animals just generally looking sick and dying down there. And I didn’t know what it was about but guaranteed something humans have done.

I wish these developments would use more natural wetlands because the wetlands are the unsung heroes of the environment. We bulldoze them to create different kinds of water management and maximize land development, but they’re super valuable as in they will help filter out pollution from our city.  Here in Manitoba, we have Lake Winnipeg, which is in pretty rough shape right now because of our human-made pollution and wetlands could solve that problem. They could filter all that pollution out for us if we thought of them as more of a valuable land conservation effort.

Humans have deemed wetlands almost no value and a roadblock in the way of agriculture and suburban development. And I think we need to re-wire our thinking on that and let them work for us because it’s an amazing ecosystem that can solve many of our pollution problems. And the geese would love it all. Waterfowl would love that. The more, the better.

A Canadian goose stares directly into the camera. (Photo: The National Film Board of Canada)
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On the endurance of the natural world

I hope people take away from the documentary, and I took away from the experience, just how resilient and amazing geese are. I am comforted by the fact that despite all the craziness they deal with with the city and the human world, they will still migrate every year. That has to do with their ancient evolutionary instincts rooted in something deeper than anything humans have created. There are things out there larger and older than the human world that we can trust.

I learned in the research part that the geese, when they migrate, actually see the magnetic field. It comes in a protein in their eye that increases during migration season so that they can see where they’re going and have a trigger to tell them to go. I also learned that humans have a bit of magnetic sense, but we’ve dulled it so much that it’s almost unnoticeable, and they’ve done studies where they put a human in a room with no windows and told them to point north. And if the humans were hungry, they could point north more frequently than if they weren’t. We’ve gone a different way but when we are put in situations of desperation or on the extreme ends of the human experience, we are tapped into some of those evolutionary forces. That we share with animals all across the world. That’s cool.

To watch the documentary and learn more about the film, visit https://www.nfb.ca/film/modern-goose/

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