I set out Tuesday in search of a goose.
No, I wasn’t shopping for Christmas dinner. I just wanted to find a live goose in Southern Illinois.
Remarkably, I found trumpeter swans before I found geese. I saw mallards, gadwall, widgeon, shovelers, black ducks, ringnecks and even a pair of hooded mergansers, but geese were rare.
Two decades ago Southern Illinois called itself “The Goose Hunting Capital of the World.” That might have been a slight exaggeration, but Southern Illinois was certainly a goose hunting destination.
Now, Southern Illinois is essentially a goose ghost town. Goose hunting is but a fond memory.
How bad is it?
I drove around rural Saline County and Crab Orchard Lake for nearly three hours Tuesday. I saw about 100 Canada geese on an old strip mine cut adjacent to Illinois 13. That’s all the geese I could find.
In last week’s Illinois Department of Natural Resources aerial waterfowl survey a total of 2,070 geese were counted in the region. And, the IDNR uses a quite generous definition of Southern Illinois – from Vandalia to Ballard County, Ky.
The largest concentration of geese was found at Du Quoin State Fairgrounds. Yup, not a major lake, not a hunting area, but the fairgrounds. And, if seated, the 1,000 geese wouldn’t come close to filling the grandstand.
Those numbers are mind-boggling. But, driving through the region and realizing the numbers are accurate, that’s amazing.
A couple decades ago there were so many geese in Southern Illinois a person had to be careful where he/she stepped. And, if you spent any time in the car, you’d see high birds migrating and low-flying local birds moving from feeding location to feeding location.
Even more shocking is how quickly the numbers changed.
As recently as the 2005 Christmas aerial census there were 55,025 geese in Southern Illinois, and the five-year average for that date was 90,171.
For the record, the Du Quoin State Fairgrounds had 1,400 geese that week, but Crab Orchard was holding 19,400 geese and Horseshoe Lake another 13,500. Last week, Crab Orchard had 275 geese and Horseshoe Lake 175.
And, the 2005 numbers are shockingly low when compared to 1990.
A 1991 report to the University of Illinois, compiled by IDNR, indicated the peak Southern Illinois population was 820,000. At one point during the winter of 1990-91, Horseshoe Lake held 220,000 geese, Union County Refuge held 145,000, Crab Orchard 150,000 and Rend Lake 136,000.
The goose harvest for the now defunct Southern Illinois Quota Zone (Williamson, Jackson, Alexander and Union counties) was 31,319 in the 1990-91 season. Incredibly high as that seems, that figure marked a 26 percent decrease from the previous season.
So, what happened?
People don’t like to hear it, but the weather changed. Illinois hasn’t had severe enough weather to push large numbers of geese south in a decade.
Farming practices have changed. No-till farming makes left over corn more accessible to feeding geese. And, the proliferation of power plant lakes through the state keeps open water available year round.
It’s difficult to believe things have changed that much.
If you don’t believe the numbers, hop in the car and search for yourself.
LES WINKELER is the outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 618-351-5088.