I was 8 years old when I first learned the term “goose egg” can be used to identify more than an unhatched gosling. It can also describe the welt that develops after the goose that laid those eggs chases you away from its nest and bites you squarely on the meaty part of your behind.
After this educational experience, I was extra cautious around this goose (it lived by my grandparents’ pond), but did not realize I had escaped relatively unscathed. Unbeknownst to me, every spring brings fresh reports of people being attacked by what would appear to be angry geese. Those attacks often result in bruises, cuts, concussions, and stitches, many of which are far more serious than a welt on the backside.
Fortunately, there have been no documented cases of a goose killing a human in the US, but the creatures still inspire fear—or at least caution—in the hearts of many. There’s a reason cultures around the world have used geese in place of guard dogs.
But if you’d prefer to avoid being chased by a large bird as you stroll around the neighborhood park, follow this advice the next time you try to walk past a goose.
Why geese attack
Geese, like other animals, aren’t naturally aggressive—at least as humans generally define the word. These birds aren’t out to get upright bipeds; they have no particular vendetta that makes them want to bite soft young flesh or beat cyclists with their wings. Still, the animals will chase down just about anything: children, adults, bicycles, even cars, and frequently knock humans and other predators to the ground in impressive feats of agility and strength.
But when a goose lashes out, it’s not because it’s angry or mean. “Geese are typically only defensive when they have a nest they’re protecting or are defending their young,” says Vanessa A. Williams, a wildlife biologist and animal behaviorist who works with Wild Goose Chase, an Illinois-based company that specializes in wild bird management. “And they’ll attack anything they see as a threat to their nest or their babies.”
[Related: How birds of a feather flock together]
That’s because geese, unlike ducks, are monogamous—they mate for life and work with their partner to take care of their nest and babies. That means that while the female is incubating, the male is standing guard, ready to defend the nest and protect his mate. After the goslings hatch, he will fight to protect his whole brood.
If you look at the data, you’ll see most adverse human-goose encounters occur almost exclusively in the spring when nesting season begins and stop entirely by fall when goslings are fully mobile, WIlliams says.
Although goose attacks occasionally occur for other reasons, like if a goose or its mate is injured, this is rare, you can reduce your chances of getting rushed by one of these birds by simply staying away from their young and places you know they’re nesting.
How geese attack
Anyone who’s worried about getting chomped by a goose bill lined with tooth-like cartilage should know that according to Williams, my childhood encounter isn’t the norm. Geese rarely bite as a defensive strategy. Instead, they charge, using their strong wings as weapons.
I hear you: Bird wings may not seem all that threatening. After all, like most other birds that fly, the bones in goose wings are hollow. But because geese can weigh up to 25 pounds, the muscles in those wings are incredibly strong. They have to be to lift such a heavy bird into the air and carry it hundreds of miles at a time during migration.
So you really don’t want to be pummeled by those wings—they can quickly knock down a full-grown adult and cause scrapes, stitches, even broken bones. All of these injuries have been reported after goose assaults.
How to know when you might get attacked by a goose
But geese rarely go directly into blitz mode. They’ll warn you of impending doom first. If you get too close, they’ll hiss. Continue to approach and they’ll start honking, too. If you still haven’t left, they will spread their wings and charge. “If they hit you with one of those wings, it’s going to hurt,” Williams warns.
Fortunately, those initial warnings often lead to little more than a bluff charge as long as you respond by vacating the area as soon as possible. But how you do so matters.
Here’s what Williams advises: When a goose first lets you know you’re not welcome, start backing away—not slowly, but don’t run. If the animal stands down, you’re likely in the clear. If not, make yourself look large and menacing by holding your hands over your head or waving your backpack in the air. If you’re wearing a jacket, unzip it and hold it open, flapping the sides like wings. Keep facing the goose, because as long as you do, the animal will likely perceive you as a threat and do little more than bluff charge.
Whatever you do, Williams implores, don’t turn your back on the bird while it’s charging. You’ll make yourself an easy target, the goose may decide it’s safe to attack, and you might find yourself on the ground under a barrage of wings.
Instead, she says to continue backing away until the bird stops following you. When it does, you can turn around, but keep an eye on the goose to make sure it leaves you alone for good.
How to avoid an encounter with a defensive goose
If you’d rather avoid an encounter altogether—and who wouldn’t—the first rule of sharing space with wild animals is to keep your distance. How much depends on the bird. According to Williams, some geese will flee their nest immediately while others will start to feel threatened when you’re as far as 50 yards from them. So keep plenty of distance between yourself and geese, and the sooner you can create space between you and them, the better. And just generally be alert and listen for hissing.
As mentioned above, absolutely stay away from nests, too. Not only does it put you at risk of starting a fight with a large fowl, it’s against the law to touch many wild birds’ nests in the US thanks to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. Likewise, don’t try to feed a mother goose while she’s on her nest, Williams says. Females don’t eat when they’re incubating, she explains, so not only are you not helping, you’re likely agitating her and her mate, who’s undoubtedly nearby.
And even though goslings are cute, don’t feed them or even think about grabbing a selfie. That’s easily enough to provoke mom and dad.
But if you keep your distance, let wildlife be, stay prepared, and remain aware, Williams says geese are often “all honk and no bonk if you know how to interact with them.”