When 3-year-old Ruger Severnak caught his first goose, the bird hissed and honked and beat its wings before pushing the toddler to the ground and waddling away with a few indignant steps over his striped blue T-shirt.
A few minutes later, after some persistence and with a bit of mud on his pants, Ruger managed to recapture the feisty waterfowl. This time, he wrangled it into a hug. “Two catches,” he shouted to his mom, who stood outside the pen and handed the goose off to a nearby wildlife technician.
“Maybe just the same one two times, bud,” Kayla Severnak responded with a laugh as she snapped pictures with her phone.
Before dawn Tuesday, with the sky’s first light still hidden behind the Wasatch range, staff from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and about 40 volunteers met in Murray to round up all the urban geese they could find. They brought cages and kayaks and rubber boots.
The annual effort, now in its 13th year, serves to relocate the birds out of Salt Lake County’s urban core, where they can be a nuisance at condo complexes and golf courses. Looking at the splattered sidewalk, the DWR’s project coordinator Rich Hansen put it this way: They poop all over the place.
As it turned out, though, the morning started off with a bit of a goose chase. Hansen had planned for the group to collect a large flock that last week camped at Wheeler Farm. When crews got there at 6 a.m. Tuesday, the black and gray birds were gone.
“It’s bad when the geese make me look silly,” Hansen said with a smile as he dispatched a couple of employees to check the marshes and creeks nearby. They found a smaller gaggle at Miller Estates, an apartment community near 4900 South.
Nineteen geese and a few ducks were in the complex’s pond as volunteers hopped out of their cars. They tried baiting them to the shore with bread. When that didn’t work, they got in boats and herded the birds into a makeshift cage.
Avery Cornia, 6, rescued a female mallard that got caught in the mix and returned it to the water. She held it far away from her shirt that had Princess Elsa from Disney’s “Frozen” on the front. “They’re so cute,” she cried.
Her 10-year-old sister, Aspyn, stood inside the pen, fearlessly picking up geese and handing them over to be tagged and put in trucks. The trick, she said, is to hold the bird’s feet together with one hand and grab onto its long neck with the other.
“This one bites,” she warned. “Ouch!” yelled another kid. A third added, “Crazy bird!”
It was a wrestling match inside the wire cage as volunteers — mostly children — chased and pinned down the birds. White feathers filled the air.
The group collected six adult geese, which will be taken to Stewart Lake and Browns Park in the eastern corner of the state near the Colorado border. “We’re trying to get them as far away as possible to stop their route back here,” Hansen said.
The 13 juveniles were separated and will be moved to the Great Salt Lake, where they can join a wild geese flock and learn to migrate.
The roundups started Monday and continue through the week, wrapping up Friday at Liberty Park. Wildlife officials anticipate collecting a couple hundred birds. They place metal bands with an identification code on one leg, and record the number with the goose’s age and gender. Some have returned to Utah. Many more end up in Kansas, Missouri, the Dakotas and Canada.
Since the project started in 2006, the DWR has removed 6,000 urban geese. Today, there are an estimated 500 of the waterfowl living in Salt Lake County.
Caroline Aldous, who has been at Miller Estates for a year, watched Tuesday as the volunteers cleared the birds from in front of her apartment. “They make a mess,” she said. “There’s so many of them.”
Aspyn Cornia startled Aldous when she walked past gripping a noisy goose. “I think I’ll go to work now,” the resident joked, backing away. Avery stood nearby imitating the bird’s honk. “Are you a goose now?” her dad asked.
Jeremiah Cornia, 41, brought his daughters and son, Hunter, to the roundup to “expose the kids to wildlife.” Kayla Severnak, who hunts, wanted to teach her two sons about conservation. Darek Massey, 27, hopes his daughter will “follow my footsteps” in learning to love the outdoors.
Akayla Massey, 6, might need some more time to warm up to it. The goose she held flapped its wings and kicked her. “Take it, Dad,” she screamed, stomping her cowgirl boots.
“Why did I hold that thing?”