Furry fix for fowl problem

Many geese, few solutions

Wildlife: A New Jersey company uses dogs to banish messy nonnative geese -- which then move to the next town over. It's an imperfect solution, but cities have few choices.

September 26, 2004|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

The city of Laurel had taken it long enough. Sure, the geese were pretty to look at, but the pounds and pounds of droppings they left behind -- on picnic tables, on playground equipment, on rental boats -- turned the lakefront into a mess.

Here at Granville Gude Park, a 29-acre oasis tucked behind an apartment complex and the Burlington Coat Factory, options were limited. Hunting isn't feasible in these parts, let alone legal. Residents would certainly scoff at any plan to euthanize the animals. Loud noises piped over speakers, meant to frighten the birds, would meet with protests from the closest neighbors.

So Mike Lhotzsky, director of the city's parks, called the Geese Police. The New Jersey outfit, with two franchises in Maryland, dispatches employees with trained border collies who stalk the geese and scare them off.

Six months later, there are no more geese at Gude park.

But where did the geese go?

"We made it not Laurel's problem," says Rich La Porta, who opened his Geese Police franchise in Central Maryland in March. "We just made it somebody else's problem."

With Maryland's resident Canada goose population growing at a dizzying clip -- the state's Department of Natural Resources says there were more than 75,000 last spring, up from 18,000 in 1990 -- managing it has become a seemingly impossible task, fraught with politics and public relations problems at every turn.

To get to DNR's goal of reducing the number of geese to 30,000, officials recommend hunting. But in most parts of suburbia where geese thrive -- soccer fields, office parks, condominium complexes -- shooting isn't allowed.

The practice of treating goose eggs with oil so the embryos don't grow requires a federal permit, and when successful it only slows the pace of growth. It doesn't shrink the population. Other methods of killing large numbers of geese have caused uproars, like over the summer in Olney when one community rounded up hundreds and had them gassed, a move that horrified a group of residents.

It's left to folks like La Porta and his low-tech method of waterfowl musical chairs to move the birds to someone else's back yard, which he admits is a "Band-Aid" -- and then just smiles when the check from the next town over comes in.

"That's why we'll always be in business," he said.

Larry J. Hindman, DNR's waterfowl project manager, doesn't think the dogs work, even though he knows several state park superintendents have chosen to use them. For years, Columbia has used a dog to chase off geese, particularly from Lake Kittamaqundi in Town Center.

"Those birds will fly into other areas, and that makes the problem worse," he said. "In time they will increase in number. Only hunting will work."

A short hunting season ended Sept. 15 on the Eastern Shore and yesterday in the rest of the state, with another season coming in November. The state has upped the number of geese, protected by a 1918 federal law, that can be bagged each day from five to eight, and it is considering even more liberal regulations in the future, Hindman said.

The geese were so bad at the Lower Shore YMCA in Pocomoke City that officials there gave hunters special dispensation to go after the geese there, even though they are within city limits, where shooting is usually prohibited.

This isn't one of those stories about sprawl, about how development encroached on the land these animals always called home, and then new residents complained. These geese are not Maryland natives.

They were first brought from the Midwest in the early 1900s as live decoys for hunters hoping to lure migrating geese as they passed overhead. When that practice became illegal, many bird owners just set their flocks free. Despite the common misconception, these birds do not migrate.

Their descendants have spurred a mini-industry dedicated to trying to make a local nuisance disappear. Just check out the Internet, where they're selling lawn chemicals to keep the geese away, fake alligator heads to put in your pond to scare them off, even a laser gun meant to be aimed at the pesky birds.

Geese honk noisily and could become aggressive to someone out on a stroll or a bike ride. But the real problem? Poop. Goose experts estimate each bird produces about 1 1/2 pounds of waste every day. It's messy and smelly, and many fear the bacteria are harmful.

Maggie Brasted, assistant director for urban wildlife for the Humane Society of the United States, said her organization backs the use of border collies and the treating of unhatched eggs. But, she said, something needs to be done on a more global scale.

Suburbs have created nirvanas for the geese -- wide stretches of freshly mowed grass that the geese love to chomp on, next to ponds and lakes where they can swim and play. Simply planting a barrier of trees or shrubs where a goose could fear a predator is lurking can make a site less attractive to the birds, she said.

There's no reason to be killing the geese, which have no predators in Maryland, she said.

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