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China’s wild geese are dying because they’re too well-behaved for their own good

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Prisoners in their own homes

geese

China’s geese are too well-behaved for their own good, and it’s causing their populations to dwindle. Instead of sneaking out of their wetland habitat into the nearby farmlands to hunt for food, some of these geese stay no matter what — in wetlands that might not have enough for them to eat.

Geese are well known for migrating in the fall to spend their winters in warmer climates. Some geese winter in Europe and North America, and they’re doing fine. But Chinese geese, which migrate from the the frozen steppes of Mongolia and Russia to the more temperate areas of the Yangtze River in southern China, are in trouble. To figure out why, scientists attached tracking devices to 67 wild geese and followed them throughout the winter. The results are published today in the journal Current Biology.

The 67 wild geese represented five different species. Geese from two species that were doing OK occasionally went into the rice paddies to get more food. But 50 birds that represented species with dwindling populations never left the wetlands at all. That puts them far more at the mercy of the natural environment — and that’s bad, because China’s wetlands are becoming more and more degraded.

Of course, there are downsides to sneaking off to the neighboring rice paddies, too. There’s human activity there, and humans like to trap or hunt the geese. Also, farmers raise domestic geese, so there might not be that much food left anyway. But clearly it still seems like it’s worth it, and we don’t know why certain species end up as prisoners in places that don’t meet their needs.

Go, fair geese. Go to the rice paddies and eat your fill. Be free!