Large flocks of geese still foul Columbia

Mess: The community, and a border collie, strive to deter a burgeoning waterfowl population from living the good life.

July 19, 2002|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

At first the Canada geese flocking to Columbia's lakefront parks were cute, then they became annoying. Now, they've become an esthetic menace.

Columbia's growing plague reflects a national trend.

This year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed rules that would permit killing more than a million of an estimated 3.5 million resident Canada geese that have been overstaying their welcome in the United States. The birds are protected by a 1916 Migratory Bird Treaty.

While the resident aliens have been polluting golf courses and gobbling crops across the nation, Columbia has a unique problem. Its manmade lakes and 4,700 acres of parks, playgrounds and open spaces look like heaven to geese, who thrive on grass.

Geese waste on docks and grassy parkland is not acceptable in clean-cut Columbia so the strategic reserve has been called out - a border collie named Bud. During nightly raids, the black and white dog breaks up the birds' dock and lawn parties, scaring them back into the water.

"You're welcome, as a goose, to land in our lake ... and make your beautiful Canadian geese calls," said Chick Rhodehamel, the Columbia Association's director of open space management. "Just don't mess up the boat dock areas."

The geese haven't gotten that message.

At Columbia's Lake Elkhorn - which recently had $525,000 worth of repairs done to its dock, boat ramps and dam - the dock and paths often are covered with droppings, forcing association crews to power-wash the area five to seven times a week. The geese also are making serious messes on the residential lawns around the lake.

"I don't know [if] they feel that because it's a new dock that they have to christen it," said Columbia Councilwoman Pearl Atkinson-Stewart of Owen Brown, where the lake is located.

Lake Elkhorn is home to an estimated 40 adult geese - with lots of goslings - which is a "100 percent increase" from 10 years ago, Rhodehamel said. Each one produces about a pound of droppings a day.

"It's quite messy," said Grant Russell of Columbia, who was recently walking along the dock with his 3-year-old son, Mason. "I've got to warn Mason not to step in the stuff."

The lake isn't an ideal setting for the geese - it's surrounded by woods and vegetation that block the waterfowls' view of the land. They need to know what they're walking into and to see a quick escape route back into the water if they're caring for young, Rhodehamel said.

Maryland's geese population has boomed - from about 10,000 statewide in the late 1980s to about 80,000 now, according to the state Department of Natural Resources.

Any body of fresh water has become prime real estate. A goose family has taken up residence in a small pond in an east Columbia industrial park. Drivers often have to stop to let the parents and their goslings cross the street.

The geese are making homes in numerous suburbs, where hunting is prohibited and no natural predators live, said Bill Harvey, DNR's game and bird section leader. Inadvertently, homeowners create a food source for the waterfowl by manicuring lawns because the birds thrive on lush, green grass.

"Whatever it is with these resident geese, they're just doing incredibly well," Harvey said.

Harvey said a number of methods are available to decrease the waterfowl population, ranging from using a dog to getting permits to keep eggs from hatching or, in extreme cases, killing the birds, Harvey said.

Last month, officials at the Kansas City Zoo killed more than 200 geese after they had been harassing visitors and making a mess. Meat from the slaughter was sent to local food banks. But animal lovers, who tend to flock to zoos, were not mollified.

In Columbia, the waterfowl first started causing problems at Lake Kittamaqundi in Town Center, which the birds favored because of its open waterfront plaza.

The geese have become so brazen - with no fear of the people around them - that they eagerly walk around the waterfront, hop onto restaurant tables outside and leave their droppings amid diners.

"It's not a desirable ambiance for the restaurants," Rhodehamel said.

That's when Bud came in. Since he started chasing the waterfowl at Lake Kittamaqundi in 1997, the geese population decreased from about 200 to two dozen.

Bud began his career at a California golf course, where he was so successful that he worked himself out of a job, Rhodehamel said.

The Columbia Association has found that a dog is the most effective geese repellent, representing a natural predator - "four legs, moving like hell" so the geese think, "Run! Get back in the water!" Rhodehamel said. The dog also makes trips to Hobbit's Glen and Fairway Hills golf courses to herd geese.

But the geese don't scare easily at the lakes - some of them have wised up to the times Bud comes out, though his trainer tries to vary the timing of his attacks. Sometimes he goes after them in the water.

"That really makes them think twice about hanging close and sticking their tongues out," Rhodehamel said.

The job isn't without risks, however. In 1999, Bud cut his paw on a piece of glass at Lake Kittamaqundi and was sidelined for six weeks.

Bud can't solve the goose problem alone. People are some of the worst culprits - they feed the geese, which not only increases their amount of waste but also makes their lives "just hunky-dory" and encourages them to stay at the lake, Rhodehamel said.

"For some reason, people think that geese eat bread," he said. "Sure, you see them in the bakeries all the time."

The association recently painted white stenciled signs on the Lake Elkhorn dock, asking visitors to not feed the waterfowl. But Rhodehamel said he wished the signs would have said, "Please, folks, just because they look at you doesn't mean they're hungry."

Despite the annoyance, the association likely won't follow the path of the Kansas City Zoo.

"We're not trying to eliminate geese," Rhodehamel said, "just train them - `Don't go here, literally, don't go here.'"

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