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Emaciated goose

A dead Canada goose, picked up along the Bighorn River, has lost most of its muscle mass to starvation, as evidenced by its protruding breast bone. The goose weighed 4 pounds 6 ounces – less than half of what it normally should weigh at this time of year.

Ducks and geese that decided to winter in the Billings area rather than fly farther south are suffering and even dying from starvation as the cold weather and deep snow persists.

Jim Hansen, the Central Flyway biologist for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, said in a press release that dozens of dead geese and ducks that he has picked up weighed less than 4.5 pounds. Normally they would be around 10 pounds. Some birds are still alive but too weak to fly.

"The biggest die-off so far appears to be along the lower Bighorn River, although we have reports along the Yellowstone, too," said Bob Gibson, FWP information officer, although he noted the agency has not made a concerted effort to go looking for them.

Birds that spend the winter in the region normally would have waste grain, sugar beets, grass and alfalfa to feed on, Hansen said.

But this year heavy snow arrived in December and hasn't eased. A few warm days in January did not melt enough snow to uncover food sources, but it did form an icy crust on the snow. More heavy snow followed, eventually adding up to more than 84 inches in the Billings area.

Waterfowl were also stressed by temperatures that fell to minus 30 degrees along the Yellowstone River early in February. As a result, many waterfowl have been living on their own body fat and muscle tissue since before the first of the year. Hunters who harvested geese in early January reported that some birds were skinny and had not fed.

Eventually the waterfowl became so weak that they could not fly south, even when extreme cold and snow shut off their food sources.

Hansen credited mild winters during the past two or three years with prompting geese and ducks to stay around. Many that survived earlier mild winters have never been south of Montana and may not have recognized cues to migrate.

On Jan. 2 and 3, FWP biologists surveyed portions of the Central Flyway near Fort Peck and along the Yellowstone and Bighorn rivers. They counted 16,711 ducks and 79,222 geese. That compares with about 130,000 geese three years ago, Hansen said.

Hansen is asking anyone who sees multiple dead waterfowl to call him at 247-2957 and report the place and number of birds.

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