The goose that landed in Dodger Stadium during a Padres playoff game likely suffered from two environmental stressors: California’s drought and avian flu – a highly contagious virus that’s sweeping through bird populations across the continent.
San Diegans marveled at the now infamous flight: A goose landed in right-center field on Oct. 12 as the Padres clung to a two-run lead in the eighth inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Eventually, stadium staff threw a towel over the animal and removed it from the field just as Padres closing pitcher Josh Hader took the mound to secure a win for San Diego.
The fowl turned legend. Fans painted its effigy on buildings and made hats. Some thought it was the reincarnated spirit of Rich “Goose” Gossage, a Hall of Fame pitcher for the Padres in the mid-1980s.
But local bird experts watching footage of the goose knew spotting this particular species, the greater white-fronted goose, in Los Angeles was rare and found its on-field behavior odd and symptomatic of bird flu.
“As soon as I saw (footage) of the goose, I thought that it could be the flu,” said Jon Enyart, senior director for Project Wildlife at the San Diego Humane Society. “The disease affects the respiratory and neurologic systems. If a bird is depressed or lethargic and down, it could easily be one of the primary symptoms of the disease.”
So too did Rebecca Duerr, director of research and veterinary science at the Los Angeles International Bird Rescue.
“(Bird flu) was my first thought. It’s very abnormal for geese to just plunk down and not be able to stand,” Duerr said.
Nicole Singer, vice president of public relations for the Dodgers, told the Los Angeles Times the bird was “safely released,” but didn’t answer questions about how or where. The Dodgers didn’t respond to further inquiries from Voice of San Diego. Avian experts say the best thing to do with an animal like that is contact local animal control.
“The bird should have been brought in for an exam,” said Russ Curtis, a spokesman for the International Bird Rescue. “We encourage the Dodgers to reach out to us and help them do some training as this is happening more often in Major League Baseball.”
The goose’s appearance at Dodger Stadium coincided with preliminary positive tests for avian flu in Orange County, Enyart said. Los Angeles County reported its first confirmed cases in wild birds on Oct. 17, and Orange County on Oct. 21.
Project Wildlife, San Diego’s largest hub for rescuing injured or ill wildlife, received three more greater white-fronted geese within days of that game. That’s as many as Project Wildlife received in the five years prior to 2022.
Avian flu is like the strains of flu humans’ contract and, though rare, can also spread to humans. Like COVID-19, birds can be carriers but show no sign of illness. The current strain, called H5N1, hit the continent in December 2021 and appears to be particularly contagious for wild birds and raptors, which is rare.
“This disease has caused massive deaths in wild sea bird populations on their breeding grounds,” Duerr said. “What the long-term affect will be on their future population count is up in the air.”
Wild birds in more than 40 states tested have positive and the disease spread to domestic poultry, the more common victim of bird flu. Even though maps from the U.S. Geological Survey tracking confirmed cases don’t yet catalog its reach into southern California, San Diego knows it’s here and animal facilities are already taking precautions.
San Diego County started taking precautions even before detecting its first case on Oct. 20, when a dead black swan in Lake San Marcos tested positive for bird flu . SeaWorld San Diego halted its bird rescue program. The San Diego Zoo prepared for an outbreak as far back as April, moving penguins and other birds into specialized habitats. Project Wildlife staff wear HAZMAT-style suits to prevent spread as they work with their own population.
Bird flu infection might explain why the Padres goose landed in such an odd place as Dodger Stadium that fateful day. But it doesn’t explain why the rarely seen species flew this far south.
The greater white-fronted goose was nearly eliminated in the region by over-hunting in the 19th Century, said Philip Unitt, curator at the San Diego Natural History Museum’s Department of Birds and Mammals. The species breeds in Alaska and once wintered in the Los Angeles basin prior to development, back when the land was wet, prairie habitat. Now these geese typically winter further north around the Central Valley.
“We would have just a trickle in coastal Southern California, sometimes there’d be a small flock,” Unitt said. “This fall, for some reason, there’s been this big influx.”
Unitt maintains a collection of over 46,000 bird specimens dating back to the 1800s at the San Diego Natural History Museum. One of its oldest specimens is a greater-white fronted goose from 1877, number 115 in the collection. But the most recent specimen in his collection is dated 1927.
“That gives you an idea of the relative abundance of this bird and how, until this year, they weren’t the kind falling out of the sky,” Unitt said.
Blame the West’s multi-year, climate change-driven drought which dried many critical bird refuges where these geese normally spend the winter. Waterfowl are adapted to feed on aquatic plants but also sleep overnight in water to avoid predators. But important migratory wetland habitat in the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge and surrounding rice fields that served as surrogate marshes for migrating birds are parched.
“This year, as a consequence of the drought, wetlands in Sacramento have only about half the water they would normally need to supply habitat,” said Samantha Arthur, working lands program director at Audubon California.
That means birds are flying farther and longer before resting and refueling than they normally would along the Pacific Flyway, a migratory bird route stretching along the Pacific seaboard, sometimes all the way to Mexico.
“We’ve already lost over 90 percent of our natural wetlands for migratory birds over the last 100 years as we’ve converted California’s landscape into agriculture, cities and industries along the Pacific Flyway,” Arthur said. “Those that remain are highly managed and rely on the same diminished water sources that farmers rely on.”