THE CALL of migratory geese as they cross the sky in V-shaped formation is one of nature's most stirring sounds. But the thousands of Canada geese that befoul public playing fields, beaches, and golf courses throughout Greater Boston have taken on a verminous quality. Many don't bother to migrate and are so lazy that they have earned the name ''lawn carp." People should feel no hesitation about any humane method to limit their numbers.
A recent visit to West Roxbury's Millennium Park near the Charles River found the playing fields slick with goose excrement. The problem is all too familiar to users of the Esplanade, Magazine Beach in Cambridge, Franklin Park's golf course in Dorchester, and scores of other areas where the balance of nature has tipped decidedly toward the pests. There is little fear that pathogens in goose feces pose a significant risk to public health. But the ability of a single Canada goose to produce upwards of a pound of droppings per day has resulted in many a ruined outing for people who seek to enjoy the water's edge.
In most urban venues, the recreational needs of homo sapiens trump the habits of branta canadensis. Adddling eggs to prevent hatching, harassment by specially trained dogs, erection of barriers, and expansion of hunting in designated areas are all legitimate methods to reduce the goose population. Another strategy: moving the birds to locations where they are less likely to make pests of themselves.
In Boston, volunteers from the Esplanade Association oil goose eggs to interrupt embryo development; this requires permits from the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. The Esplanade group also employs a border collie trained to drive geese away without causing physical harm to the birds. But such methods aren't perfect. Successful egg addling depends on finding the great majority of nests and doesn't help with the problem geese that now live for 20 years or more. And dogs are more likely to move the problem than solve it. The new park at Nashua Street, for example, is a panoply of goose poop, probably the result of geese fleeing border collie action on the Esplanade.
State officials are promising a swimmable Charles River, a course that could ensure strong stewardship for clean water in Massachusetts for decades to come. Such efforts would be undermined by goose droppings that dissuade swimmers from entering the water at prime recreation locations, such as Magazine Beach in Cambridge. ''Who takes priority, geese or people?" asks state Representative Martha Walz, whose Beacon Hill and Cambridge constituents are fed up with geese competing for greenspace. ''We need to get in balance."
State wildlife officials are conducting a census of Canada geese in Massachusetts, though they are not certain what steps to take once they get a number in hand. The population at last count in 1997 was roughly 38,000 ''resident," or nonmigratory, geese. These descendants of captive birds that were used as live decoys -- a practice outlawed in the 1930s -- may now exceed 50,000. Left to their own devices, the grazing geese won't move farther than a few miles of their birthplace. Within that area, no lawn, beach, playing field, or golf course is safe.
Hunting helps, according to H.W. Heusmann, a waterfowl biologist with the state's Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. He suspects that the census may reveal a decline in the goose population west of Worcester due to the expansion of the hunting season in the mid-1990s. It now stands at 107 days annually. Municipal officials in Eastern Massachusetts should take notice and examine whether hunting ordinances in their communities are so restrictive as to create unwanted geese sanctuaries. State officials should also consider relocating a portion of Greater Boston's geese to Central or Western Massachusetts.
Frustrated officials in New Jersey, Washington, Minnesota, and elsewhere have resorted to wholesale roundups and slaughter of adult geese, which take place during the molting season in early summer when the animals are easy to capture. No such extreme plan is underway in Massachusetts, nor should one be. Egg addling is more humane and enjoys the support of the MSPCA. Right now, the activity is conducted largely by volunteers who locate nests in the spring and coat the eggs with corn oil to prevent air from passing through the shell. Properly done, this method for destroying an egg's viability is 95 percent effective. But nests can be hard to find.
Despite a small staff, the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife needs to take more responsibility for locating nests and training people in humane addling techniques. Park rangers and local animal control officers would be logical recruits to such an effort.
Resident Canada geese have lost their migratory instincts. Man may be to blame for prior hunting and breeding methods. But open space is too precious, especially in urban areas, to relinquish it to winged slackers.