Operation Mother Goose begins to distribute Canada geese across the state starting on April 11, 1968.

  • By David B. Williams
  • Posted 3/09/2010
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9347
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Starting on April 11, 1968, biologists collect more than 1,200 Canada goose eggs along the Columbia River behind the nearly complete John Day Dam, located 28 miles east of The Dalles, Oregon, and about 20 miles south of Goldendale. The biologists’ goal is to use the eggs to repopulate drastically dwindled populations of the bird. Most of the geese survive and by June, the birds will be distributed throughout the state, including possibly into Puget Sound. These birds may be the source populations for the thousands of Canada geese that will live year round in urban habitats west of the Cascade Mountains.

Although modern citizens in the Puget Sound may find it hard to believe, Canada geese originally did not inhabit this area. Furthermore, overhunting, unrestricted harvesting of eggs, and habitat loss in the late 1800s and early 1900s had driven down goose populations throughout the country. In the 1960s, however, biologists began to reintroduce the birds back to their former habitats and to place them in new habitats. This frenzy manifested itself in the Northwest through a project called Operation Mother Goose.  

Operation Mother Goose began on April 11, 1968, 17 miles up the Columbia River from the nearly complete John Day Dam. Early in the morning approximately 25 men from the Washington state Department of Game and the U.S. Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife gathered at a small island. From this base of operations, crews spread out in powerboats to collect eggs from nests on 25 to 30 islands in the 70 miles of river that would be flooded less than a week later.    

Once an egg was collected, it was placed in a cardboard box insulated with goose down from the nests. When enough eggs accumulated, the boxes were lashed onto a rack on the outside of a helicopter and whisked 50 miles northeast to the Kennewick Game Farm, one of several facilities across the state that raised game birds such as pheasants for hunting. Biologists immediately unpacked their cargo, shined a light into each egg to determine the stage of development of the embryo, and placed it into one of three incubators. The entire process took about two hours from collection to safe keeping.    

During the two days of hunting, the 25 men collected 1,200 eggs. Of these, 38 were cracked and 108 were infertile. The remaining 1,000 or so eggs hatched over the next 32 days. Most of the young geese survived at the game farm, although nearly a hundred suffocated under other goslings. Within four weeks, each rapidly growing goose was eating more than a pound of feed each day.     

Biologists working with the goslings hoped that the goslings could learn from and join wild flocks and soon graduate to the twice-yearly migration. (The project’s title comes from this behavior.) The first releases of the geese into the wild took place at McNary Refuge and McNary Game Farm at the confluence of the Snake and Columbia rivers. Biologists released 100 birds between the two sites.     

By June 12, more than 900 geese had been distributed, mostly to refuge and game farms near the Columbia, but a few outliers received Mother Goose deliveries, too.  For example, Arizona Fish and Game picked up 126 goslings for Phoenix and Flagstaff; Idaho Fish and Game acquired 50 to plant on the Coeur d’Alene River and Spokane obtained 100 birds.    

Operation Mother Goose was front page news for four days in Walla Walla, sharing space with the search for Martin Luther King’s assassin, and the Vietnam War. Most regional newspapers covered the event. Television stations from Portland filmed the operation and the Associated Press picked up the story and distributed it across the country. Of the two Seattle daily newspapers, only the Post-Intelligencer carried news of Operation Mother Goose, under the heading "Goose Eggs Saved From Rising Water Behind New Dam." The short article described the event and stated that goslings would be released along the Columbia.  

What this story and any other subsequent article about Operation Mother Goose fail to mention is that the goslings from the John Day eggs might have been released in Seattle, and thus may be the progenitor of Seattle’s present-day Canada goose population. Or they may not be. The record is not clear.  

A 1961 study by biologist Charles Yocum concluded that Washington state had never been flush with Canada geese but that many more birds nested in the state, exclusively east of the mountains, than before the arrival of settlers in the Pacific Northwest. Yocum traced this change to increased food supplies due to irrigation and plowing of the prairies; elimination of Native Americans along the major rivers, which allowed the birds to nest in these habitats; and establishment of alien cheat grass, which provided additional food.   

Because of habitat, the big birds did not nest west of the Cascades. They 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 much of this around Puget Sound where Douglas firs and western red cedars shot skyward above a dense understory of evergreen salal that grew down to the shoreline.   

Official reports about Operation Mother Goose do not mention any bird releases in Seattle or even in Puget Sound. But according to the former manager of the state’s South Tacoma Game Farm, Bud Angerman, 10 to 15 goslings were sent to Tacoma. They did reproduce and some of those birds were sent to Yakima and Olympia. None, however, were released in Seattle.

Curt Hedstrom, Kennewick Game Farm Superintendent in the 1960s, and the man who wrote the official reports, had a slightly different story. He thought that some geese were shipped over mountains and released near Lake Washington but did not know where, who released them, or how many were released. He did offer a reason why they might have been released -- to establish a flyway where hunters might have a chance to shoot for a Canadian honker.    

We will probably 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 done such a fine job of altering the landscape. One state wildlife manager put it this way: “Canada geese are opportunistic birds who surely would have taken advantage of the vacant habitat and few predators.  Mother Goose merely sped up the process” (Williams, 102). 

Sources: David B. Williams, The Street-Smart Naturalist: Field Notes from Seattle (Portland, Oregon, WestWinds Press, 2005), 97-102; Charles Yocum, “Recent Changes in Canada Goose Populations in Geographical Areas in Washington,” The Murrelet, Vol. 42, No. 2 (1961), pp. 13-21; Curt Hedstrom, “Operation Mother Goose,” Washington’ Wildlife, Small Game Report, 1969, pp. 175-177; Ellis Bowhay, “Mother Goose Project,” Ibid., 1970-1971, pp. 85-88; David B. Williams telephone interviews with Curt Hedstrom and Bud Angerman, 2000.  

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