To the average citizen a flock of Canada geese flying north is a harbinger of spring; but to parks and recreation professionals responsible for lakes, ponds, parks or open areas such as golf courses nationwide, it means another season of dealing with the increasingly pesky birds.
But they should take heart because they aren’t alone in the problem and there are ways to control it.
Back from the Brink
The Canada goose was once an endangered species, and according to a 2002 United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) report, is one of North America’s greatest wildlife success stories.
In the early 1900’s, the Canada goose population in North America was nearly eliminated by unrestricted harvesting of eggs, commercial hunting and draining of wetland habitat. By 1960, however, Canada geese numbered 980,000 and by the year 2000 their numbers had increased to 3,734,500 according to the USDA report. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service currently estimates their numbers to be about 3.2 million.
This proliferation was created through many conservation methods including the granting of federal protection for the large bird. However, this success has also caused the bird to be on the most-unwanted list of many parks and recreation managers.
Setting the Stage
The nature of the parks and recreation environment creates a perfect match with the geese. The large birds can weigh up to 20 pounds, grow to three feet or more from head to webbed foot and have wingspans of 50-70 inches. They are commonly found in areas having mowed grass associated with a body of water.
Thus, parks adjacent to lakes or ponds, golf courses or athletic fields make a perfect home. The short, frequently mowed grass produces fresh growth of tender shoots, which geese thrive on. Plus, in many locations people add to the problem by feeding the geese bread, corn and other tasty treats. The wide-open spaces create a secure habitat because the geese can see any predator approaching; and in urban settings there are few if any predators. With digs like these, the geese have little reason to leave.
This has created another natural phenomena; the once migratory birds have gradually lost their urge and indeed, their reason, to migrate. There are now two broad classifications of Canada goose; migratory and resident – and the resident population is the one causing parks and recreation managers the greatest problems.
As geese begin to homestead, their offspring are born into a non-migrating environment. Generation after generation has become accustomed to staying in one place. Over time, many may have lost their instinct to migrate. The resident geese also serve as “decoys,” attracting migratory geese.
The juxtaposition of geese and humans in recreational settings has created problems.
The Canada goose can eat several pounds of grass per day, which equates to an equal amount of excrement daily. Multiply this by a flock of 100 geese, which is not uncommon and the volume of waste becomes significant. In addition, they can over-graze areas creating erosion problems.
In the wild, this isn’t a problem. But it’s a significant problem in places where children play, often barefooted, and where people picnic, walk or exercise.
Geese are a nuisance because of their droppings, aggressive behavior and noise, but they may also represent an environmental threat or risk to human health and safety, according to a study by the University of Wisconsin extension service.
The goose droppings contain nitrogen, which can leach into ponds or lakes and lead to excessive alga growth. Taking a stroll in a park frequented by geese can be akin to strolling through a minefield. In addition, children playing barefooted in parks can step or fall in droppings. And if it gets on their hands it will ultimately end up in their mouth.
According to the Wisconsin study, high concentrations of geese increase the possibility that avian diseases can be transmitted, creating the potential for massive bird die-offs. Disease organisms can spread to other species. Diseases such as avian influenza, salmonella and avian cholera can be transmitted in these circumstances. Transmission of disease or parasites from geese to humans has not been well documented, but the potential exists.
The mere size and nature of the geese also present a physical threat to humans, especially young children. The birds are very aggressive during nesting season and equally so at feeding time. The tall birds are eye-to-eye with toddlers and pre-schoolers and are known to attack them.
Another serious issue with the birds not directly related to parks and recreation is their threat to civil aviation. Because they like large open grassy areas and tend to flock, it is not uncommon to see them around airports, where they pose a bird strike threat to aircraft taking off or landing. The Wisconsin report cites many bird-strikes with Canada geese leading to crashes with deaths and injuries. The FAA estimates that 240 goose-aircraft collisions occur annually.
Methods to control the Canada goose problem in urban areas are somewhat limited and temporary, but more control measures are coming available as the problem intensifies. Normally, using a combination of methods is most effective because the geese get accustomed to just one.
There are several low-tech methods, such as planting barrier shrubs between water and a food source, not mowing grass or using fire crackers or other noise makers to frighten them off. However, these methods may not be practical in an urban recreational setting.
Tethering large balloons overhead can work because they don’t like things moving over their heads, reminding them of airborne predators. Some balloons are sold with predatory eyes painted on to intimidate geese even more.
Success has been reported using dogs to chase them away from places they are not welcomed. People have actually started businesses where they hire out Border collies and other types of herding dogs to chase geese away. After the dogs have harassed geese in an area a few times, the geese will begin to avoid that area because they know there is a threat. However, they ultimately return if the food is plentiful.
There are products that use goose distress calls broadcast from a concealed transmitter to reportedly deter geese from entering an area. For example, Bird-X (www.bird-x.com) offers the GooseBuster, a repellent featuring actual alert and alarm calls recorded in the wild.
And, there are other methods that may require state or federal permits, so the prudent recreation manager will check applicable laws before using them. A state or federal official must execute some methods.
There are some chemicals approved for use on grass that gives it a bad taste to geese. However, most are eliminated with rain or mowing, requiring frequent re-application. This can get costly when treating large areas.
Permits may also be granted to disrupt the nests and cause the eggs not to hatch by shaking or puncturing them. In less urban areas special hunting seasons are sometimes enacted to quickly reduce a local goose population.
State wildlife officials may also conduct goose roundup and relocation operations. This can only be done in late June or early July when the birds molt and cannot fly. The geese are herded into holding pens, get their wings clipped, are loaded into cages and transported long distances to preserves. Since they can’t fly for about a year, this normally keeps them put. There is normally a fee to local governments to cover the state’s staff and transportation costs.
If the problem is serious enough in an urban area, ordinances can be enacted to make it unlawful for people to feed geese. For examples go to www.generalcode.com.
Pro’s & Con’s
The Canada goose nuisance has become such an issue nationwide that organizations have sprung up for and against control of the problem.
For example, the Coalition to Prevent the Destruction of Canada Geese was formed in 1993 by a group of concerned citizens in Rockland County, New York, to prevent mass killing of a local goose population. The coalition rigorously challenges goose extermination plans from a scientific, ethical, and practical standpoint.
“Our research indicates that, despite having decades of precedent, lethal methods of wildlife control are generally ineffective and leveraged into place by playing to the fears of the public,” say coalition officials on its web site.
On a parallel course but taking a more community service approach is “GeesePeace.” This organization arose in 1998 in Lake Barcroft, Va., under similar circumstances as the coalition’s. Only here, both sides of the issue in this community came together to form strategic, long-term and non-lethal methods of de-conflicting the human-goose problem.
GeesePeace formulated a 17-point plan that uses all possible, non-lethal options to eliminate the nuisance aspect of geese. By the summer of 1999, after trial and error, Lake Bancroft was “geese nuisance free.” The program has proven so successful that they now assist other communities in setting up programs. More information can be found on page XX or at www.geesepeace.org.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has recently enacted new rules that allow state wildlife agencies, landowners, and airports more flexibility in controlling resident Canada goose populations. The service took this action in response to widespread concern about overabundant populations of resident Canada geese, which can damage property, agriculture, and natural resources in parks and other open areas near water.
"Resident Canada geese populations have increased dramatically over the past 15 years," said Service Director H. Dale Hall. "These high population levels have been shown to cause problems for natural and economic resources, and we believe increased local management with national oversight is the best approach to reduce conflicts and bring the population under control. Through this approach, the service will continue working to expand and protect hunting opportunity while providing airports, private landowners, and state and local officials the tools they need to address resident Canada goose issues."
More information on these new rules can be found at www.fws.gov.
Randy Gaddo is Director of Leisure Services (Parks & Recreation and Library Services), Peachtree City, Ga. He can be reached at (770) 631-2542 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
GeesePeace’s Integrated Strategy
The first step is population stabilization using GeesePeace’s egg oiling protocol. Egg oiling (coating eggs with corn oil to prevent gosling births) has three purposes:
1) Slows down or stops the increase in resident goose population.
2) No goslings mean that the parents and other members of the flock have no reason to stay. Flushing them out is significantly easier and more effective when there are no or few goslings. It is inhumane to flush parents or harass goslings.
3) Recent studies carried out by the New York State and Michigan Department of Natural Resources indicates that geese that have a failed nesting experience will begin a molt migration to the nesting areas in Canada where migrating birds are molting.
The next step begins after nesting is over (early to mid May). The resident geese that remain in the area will need a safe place to molt (lose their flight feathers). A goose exclusion zone is established where there is zero tolerance for geese. In this zone a Border collie is used on each water body in the exclusion area.
This means that the geese do not have a safe place to molt and they will go to secondary locations -- areas where the geese feel safe and have sufficient foraging or they begin a molt migration. There are many areas in communities that provide a safe place for geese to molt and the geese are not causing a problem. Border collies should not be used in those areas.
Use landscaping to enhance the effectiveness of the Border collie. Planting of tall grasses, bushes or other vegetation provide a place for a land predator to hide thus increasing the effectiveness and perceived threat of the Border collie. The geese believe the Border collie is a predator.
When these steps are followed most if not all geese in the exclusion zone will be gone, molting in areas where they will not be causing a nuisance. They will remain in these areas for six weeks to eight weeks because they cannot fly. Border collies are not used during this period. In late July or early August the geese regain their ability to fly and will begin pond hopping. The Border collie is then reintroduced into water bodies in the exclusion zone. The geese quickly re-learn that these water bodies seem dangerous to them and they avoid them. There will be some geese landing from time to time but they will not stay long ... mostly to rest on their way to other safer water bodies. Repellents applied to strategic areas will keep these small number of geese out of sensitive areas.
Please note: Each community and its environment is different and the specific application of these methods will vary to fit individual sites. GeesePeace assists its partner communities and organizations in creating a program that will work for them.
You can contact GeesePeace at: 6405 Lakeview Drive, Falls Church, VA 22041, Phone: (703) 354-1713, Fax: 703) 354-1940, email: email@example.com, or www.geesepeace.org