On a wing and a prayer

Mission: A Columbia woman who continues to buy replacement road signs to protect a small population of geese hopes thieves will leave the markers alone.

April 08, 2001|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Loretta Ames is just trying to do a good deed for geese, but the fates are conspiring against her.

After she heard in 1989 that goslings nesting in Columbia's Guilford Industrial Park had been killed by a car, she persuaded Howard County officials to erect two geese-crossing signs.

The signs, however, have not stayed put.

Seven times, one or both have disappeared, falling prey to snowplows, contractors and thieves - especially thieves, who can't steal geese signs anywhere else in the county because Ames' pair is unique.

What should have been a one-time project has mushroomed into a frustrating annual undertaking. Each time a sign vanishes, Ames replaces it, paying $75 to $85 a sign to do her part for wildlife. The tab so far: about $550. Some of the money was donated, but she covered the rest.

In recent years, she has engraved a clear message on the back of the yellow signs: "Private Property." But that hasn't helped.

"A lot of people [couldn't] care less about geese," said the 59-year-old Columbia resident, resignation in her voice. "They think it's a pretty sign and, `Gee, this would look great in my bedroom.'

"I think they think they're paying for it with their tax dollars, but they're not," Ames added.

She first noticed the Canada geese 12 or 13 years ago, nibbling by an old quarry pond near Guilford Road. They arrive every January and leave in early July. In between, they hatch a family.

Ames likes to stop by after leaving her workplace - the U.S. Postal Service's sorting facility in Gaithersburg - and watch the "tiny little puffballs" grow.

What prompted the sign saga: The geese decided that the grass on the other side of Guilford is greener.

The birds cross the busy road at a curve, putting themselves in danger of being hit by cars. When the inevitable happened, Ames knew what to do.

Howard County has scores of deer-crossing signs and a few for cattle, but just two for geese - because she insisted in 1990 that they were needed.

All was fine until 1993. Then a blizzard hit town, and when the snow cleared, the signs were gone. She assumes that snowplows were to blame.

County officials didn't want to pay for replacement signs, but offered to install them if Ames bought them. So she did - that time, and annually since 1996.

Extra precautions

Whoever is taking them is resourceful.

In 1998, for instance, someone sawed through the wooden support post to get to one sign. This spring, both were missing - one had been pulled out of the ground, presumably by a thief, and the other was taken by contractors doing work in the area

Ames got the latter back; she replaced the other. Both went up a few weeks ago.

This time, they're the best-secured signs in the county.

Each sits on a metal post, is secured by a new type of anti-theft bolt, and has three times as much concrete holding the kit and caboodle in place. County workers who handled the installation hope it's enough.

"With the problems we've had, we've stepped it up a bit," said Rod Miles, an operations supervisor with the Howard County Department of Public Works.

He's followed the sign situation for three years and still can't believe it.

"For some reason, people seem to like them," he said. "That's really been a puzzle."

`A real trouper'

Ames wishes people would admire from afar. None of the Guilford Road geese were killed while the signs were up, she said, but some of the birds fell prey to vehicles twice while the signs went missing.

She sighs, thinking about it.

But she takes heart in the knowledge that she's not the only one who appreciates the geese. Norma Myers, who works in the AT&T building near their pond, remembers co-workers building little ramps to help goslings struggling to get over the curb.

Myers likes the birds - they break the monotony of the day. What Ames has done year after year for them impresses her.

"She's been a real trouper," Myers said.

Ames has never questioned whether to replace the signs. She does it because she can't help it. She loves animals.

"I do what little I can do to keep the animals in this world going," she explained. "And it's little people like me that will keep wildlife going."

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