Fake alligator is for the birds at Westminster Community Pond

Decoy fails to scare off nuisance waterfowl

May 03, 2004|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Its thick green scales, glowing yellow eyes and menacing toothy grin were designed to intimidate the waterfowl.

But, so far, this phony alligator head, bobbing on the calm waters of Westminster Community Pond, has not scared a single creature.

The ploy doesn't even fool the children who play in the surrounding park and feed the ever-increasing number of fowl.

"He is not scary, and he is fake," said Ryan Black, 4, visiting the park with his grandmother. "I don't see him swimming."

In an effort to control the proliferating population of Canada geese and domestic ducks, Carroll County spent $150 for a pair of plastic alligators and dropped one in the 1-acre pond, a few hundred yards from the noise and traffic on Route 140. The other plastic gator is in reserve, waiting for a possible assignment.

"We wanted to see what one would do," said Richard J. Soisson, county director of enterprise and recreation services. "At this point, it looks like we need to do a lot more."

Hundreds of birds, mostly Canada geese and wild and domestic ducks, have taken up residence in the park and have come to depend on the visitors who feed them. The pond is murky brown from tons of bread and cereal crumbs disintegrating on its bottom.

One visitor last week dumped a gallon bag of Cheerios into the water. The geese ignored it while small catfish stirred up the mud as they swam to the surface and nibbled.

Nicky Ratliff, executive director of the Humane Society of Carroll County, hasn't seen the pond predator, but said an immovable object wouldn't frighten a living thing.

"Birds are smart, and they can size up really quickly whether something is a threat," Ratliff said. "I am not sure these birds have a clue what an alligator is, but they won't be afraid of it, if it doesn't move. They will probably be landing on it soon enough."

Soisson said he hoped the gator might at least deter migratory geese from settling at the pond.

"We don't have migratory geese," said Ratliff. "Our geese have never seen Canada. They are native Marylanders."

Tim Hoen, a biophysics researcher at the Johns Hopkins University, said the experiment shows how quickly wildlife catch on.

"The geese realize that the thing hasn't moved in a week, and that's it as far as being effective," he said.

Vicky Poole, curator of herpetology at the Baltimore Zoo, said a stationary alligator wouldn't fool any goose.

"I am not surprised that it is not working," said Poole. "They should try swan decoys. The geese have never seen an alligator, but they know what a swan is."

Or maybe they should try a real gator, said Henry Lysy, a regular visitor to the pond.

While the 65-degree water temperature is ideal for trout, "gators usually don't like water this cold," said Mark Staley, a state fisheries biologist who was stocking the pond Friday with about 250 rainbow trout. "But the gator is not a bad idea, if it would work."

If not a real gator, how about owls or snapping turtles, Lysy asked.

"This gator just drifts around, and all the geese and ducks here know about it," he said.

Lysy lamented the conditions at the park, where he organized the 17th annual Westminster Optimist fish rodeo that drew about 200 children to the pond yesterday.

Rotting feed and fowl droppings are making a mess of the pond shore. It should be grass-covered, but the birds have eaten the grass down past its roots.

"This time of year, they should have to mow the grass, but it is not coming back," said Lysy. "This would be a lot prettier park without all this mess. It is a shame to let it go like this."

Bird droppings also are increasing nitrogen levels in the pond and causing algae blooms that sap oxygen from the water and kill fish.

"The pond is becoming a cesspool that will eventually hurt all the animals," Ratliff said.

The birds would soon fly away from the park if people would stop feeding them, she said.

"It is not cruel to not feed these animals," she said. "Often what people feed them causes them problems."

Lysy said he often asks people to refrain from feeding the brazen birds.

"These creatures should be foraging on their own in a field somewhere, not waiting by cars for people to feed them," he said. "Instead they come here for free feed. You can't blame them."

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