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Always in Season/ Mike Jacobs: Birds find habitat along Grand Forks coulees

Ducks likely have been a part of the coulee scene since the university was founded 137 years ago. Geese, on the other hand, are a relatively recent occurrence on campus.

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Illustration by Mike Jacobs

In this summer without students, Canada geese have taken over the UND campus. They are not alone. At least two species of ducks are taking advantage of the relative quiet along the English Coulee to raise their broods and delight pedestrian passersby.

These are not new developments on campus. Ducks likely have been a part of the coulee scene since the university was founded 137 years ago. Geese, on the other hand, are a relatively recent occurrence on campus. Canada geese were nesting in the Red River Valley in 1883, but for most of the next century, they were largely absent. The return of nesting geese to North Dakota is a recent phenomenon, dating from the 1980s.

Their return is not surprising. Once populations reached sustainable levels, geese began to seek out suitable habitat that provides abundant food and relative safety. Geese are grazers. They like open space of the kind called “greenswards,” with closely cut grass and a lot of it. This ensures good food and good visibility. The third component of good goose habitat is nesting sites, and the geese find these along the English Coulee, though perhaps not in the heart of the campus. The heart of the campus provides an expanse of water, and geese are waterfowl, after all.

The presence of geese is not entirely welcome. They are large birds. They eat a lot. And they aren’t careful where they deposit their waste. In fact, they seem perversely attracted to sidewalks as a proper place to take care of that business.

Since geese are large, they create another hazard. Sometimes, they get run into. Sometimes, they become aggressive.


And so they present management challenges.

These challenges are not unique to university campuses. In fact, golf courses are perhaps the quintessential goose habitat. Golf courses with their greens and their water hazards are attractive to grazers such as geese, but the geese and their leavings are not attractive to golfers. Some courses have taken extreme measures to limit the number of geese.

That hasn’t been necessary on UND’s campus, but it goes a ways toward explaining why the other waterfowl using the campus are more welcome. A walk along the bike path from the campus to Gateway Drive turned up three broods of geese, several of mallards and one of wood ducks.

The number of geese broods was in dispute. My walking companion, Erik Fritzell, a wildlife biologist, explained that geese form melded flocks in which offspring of one pair mingles with the offspring of another. Geese gang up, so to speak. Sometimes, multiple broods, often with goslings of different ages, form what is known as a “crèche.” Goslings from one clutch might join those from another, or even form multiple broods, and travel about with one or the other or several pairs of parents around. Our count of goslings ranged from 15 to 18. Some of the little darlings kept moving from one group to the other, making a certain count impossible.

We were disappointed to see only the one wood duck brood. The campus and the coulee have been reliable places to find wood ducks. The drakes are conspicuous, but the hens, who are responsible for brood rearing, are much drabber. It’s possible we overlooked them.

Our perambulation along the coulee took us past places where vegetation had been hacked away to the water’s edge, a surefire invitation for a goose invasion – and an invasion of UND property. North of campus, the coulee flows through what had been known as “The Bronson Property,” after a justice of the state Supreme Court who once owned it and deeded it to the university – with covenants that strictly governed its development. The campus wellness center, Ralph Engelstad Arena and the Medical School are on the Bronson Property. So are two residential developments. So is a mile-long stretch of the coulee.

How the “riparian area” along the coulee is to be managed has lately become a critical question. Many species of birds, and certainly not only waterfowl, use the area, and the bike path allows casual walkers to have an experience of nature quite unlike what a stroll through a residential neighborhood provides. The coulee has provided an outdoor laboratory that generations of students have used.

Many species – northern cardinals prominent among them – depend on the kind of overgrown areas the coulee banks provide, especially in winter. So do a variety of sparrows and finches and even the occasional gray partridge.


Not long ago, Grand Forks was honored as one of the 10 best cities in the United States for bicyclists. The same amenity, continuous tracks with few interruptions by traffic, could help make Grand Forks a Top 10 city for birding, as well – though Canada geese would not be the species most birders would be seeking. In fact, restoring the coulee bank vegetation would discourage the geese.

Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at mjacobs@polarcomm.com.

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Mike Jacobs

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