Laser has unwanted geese seeing red

Pa. county turns to technology to keep reservoirs clean

March 18, 2001|By Matthew P. Blanchard | Matthew P. Blanchard,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

PHILADELPHIA - Federal agents have started an effort to combat what they say is a regional environmental crisis: Hundreds of thousands of Canada geese excreting waste into area drinking-water reservoirs.

Rumors about the device, also known as the "laser goose-dissuader," had been flying for weeks among bird-watchers near Lake Galena in central Bucks County. It sweeps the geese off a lake like a broom, they said.

The harmless laser is perhaps the weirdest tool in the arsenal available to East Coast communities coping with an exploding Canada goose population crowding lakes, soccer fields and corporate lawns.

Federal officials would not reveal when or where the laser was to be tested.

"All I can tell you is that we are researching new bird-harassment techniques," said Jason Suckow, district supervisor for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's wildlife-services program. "This does involve lasers."

As night fell on Lake Galena recently, two U.S. government trucks could be seen parked far out on the lake's snow-covered dam.

Two Agriculture Department researchers stood nearby, counting thousands of geese as they came over the horizon in long, V-shaped waves stretching across the sky.

The geese had spent the day dining in farm fields, where they destroy an estimated $300,000 in crops each year in Bucks County alone, according to a survey conducted last year by county officials.

Now, 17,000 geese were roosted on the lake, ready to stay the night. Each bird weighs 10 to 15 pounds and can dump 1 1/2 pounds of feces a day, the Agriculture Department says. Their satisfied honking was audible a half-mile away.

The reservoir provides drinking water to thousands of homes in Bucks and Montgomery Counties. County officials say the water is perfectly safe, after thorough treatment and filtration, but they worry that giant quantities of goose feces could change that.

Firecrackers, Mylar balloons, trained dogs and other nonlethal methods are all commonly used to frighten geese off lakes and ponds. But geese are adaptable and often ignore these stimuli.

A $3,500 flashlight

Enter the laser goose-harasser. It is essentially a $3,500 flashlight that projects a powerful beam of red light designed to terrify geese at a range of 400 yards. Geese have never seen anything like it.

The laser performed excellently in indoor trials with penned birds at the Agriculture Department's National Wildlife Research Center in Sandusky, Ohio.

"It was amazing," said the Agriculture Department's Suckow. "When that dot of light would hit a great blue heron, it acted like you had physically touched it.

"But we've never tried it on Canada geese," he said. "It could flop."

By 6:30 p.m., geese carpeted an area of the lake the size of seven football fields.

Then, Jon Cepek, a Agriculture Department wildlife technician, activated the laser harasser, sending a red circle dancing across the black lake.

Furious honking erupted from the darkness. Frantic wings beat the water.

"Ooh, they don't like that," cooed Chris Croson, another Agriculture Department technician.

In the green light of Croson's night-vision goggles, it was a stunning spectacle: The laser beam shaved geese off the lake like a razor on black stubble.

Frightened geese bunched tighter and tighter - desperate to avoid the beam - until they panicked, taking flight by the hundreds.

A black cloud of birds rose above the lake, and most of them left the area entirely. Only a few stubborn stragglers stayed behind on the water.

Harmless

The laser beam is harmless, Croson said, but effective.

"They see the body next to them turning red, and they are terrified," he said. "It's pretty powerful, and it's only powered by AA batteries."

Beside him, Ron French, a local ornithologist, remained skeptical about the laser's usefulness.

"The birds aren't being harmed at all," French said. "But I don't know what this will accomplish."

French said the laser could frighten away desirable species such as barnacle geese visiting from Greenland and whitefront geese from Louisiana.

"And what's to stop the Canada geese from just coming back tomorrow?" he asked.

That night, the Agriculture Department team cleared 95 percent of the geese from the lake. Testing continued for three more nights, and by Friday, the laser goose-harasser appeared to be a success.

The number of geese that tried to land on the lake had dropped from 17,000 to 3,000, likely taking refuge in nearby farm fields.

"These birds work on an energy budget," Croson said. "It's no longer worth it to them to have to fly off that lake frightened and find a new roosting point.

"We're basically breaking their habit," he said.

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