Health officials to measure safety of park

Popular recreation spot soiled by many waterfowl

Westminster

December 17, 2004|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

The Westminster Community Pond and Park, a favored spot for picnicking, strolls and leisure respites, is so befouled by proliferating flocks of wild geese and domestic ducks that health officials are planning to test the soil and water to determine its suitability for people.

Hundreds of birds - including Canada geese, wild and domestic ducks, and more than a few crossbreeds of unknown parentage - have taken up residence in the 3-acre park. Rotting feed and fowl droppings are making a mess of the 1-acre pond's shore.

Nicky Ratliff, executive director of the Humane Society of Carroll County, said the pond is "almost a biohazard area."

"I wouldn't take my child there," she said. "And you certainly can't eat there. It is absolutely disgusting."

Foraging birds have eaten much of the grass down to the roots, making the once-green shoreline a muddy morass.

"There is so much waste in the water that any fish living there would have to be hardy," said Jeff Degitz, bureau chief of the county Department of Recreation and Parks. "There is a lot of concern, because we have more ducks and geese than water. It is not a pretty site."

Health officials said yesterday they plan to test the water and soil as soon as possible.

"We will go prepared to take some tests and may have to do follow-up tests," said Dr. Murray Berkowitz, who is working with Larry L. Leitch, health department director.

The problems can be traced to people feeding the birds, officials said.

"The birds view the pond as a safe haven where they can go for an easy meal," Degitz said. "We are trying to educate the public, but it's almost a family tradition. People have good intentions, but they are doing harm to the park and the wildlife."

The birds have come to depend on the visitors who feed them. They waddle up to cars looking for handouts - and generally get them.

The pond is murky brown from tons of bread and cereal crumbs disintegrating on its bottom, and bird droppings are increasing nitrogen levels in the pond and causing algae blooms that sap oxygen from the water and kill fish.

Anglers warned

Fishing is catch-and-release, but anglers who don't heed that policy are warned by officials not to eat anything caught in the pond.

In an effort to control the proliferating bird population, the county spent $150 for a pair of plastic alligators and dropped one into the pond in the spring, a few hundred yards from Route 140. The birds soon began to rest fearlessly on the alligator, which has since been removed.

"We are looking at other options as far as decoys," Degitz said. "But the birds eventually figure things out."

A few motorists sat in their cars and gazed at the pond yesterday afternoon, but no one ventured near the shore. One motorist said a walk by the pond would mean a lengthy cleaning of his shoes before he could get back into his car.

The geese might fly off if the food supply diminished, but the ducks left at the pond by thoughtless owners would probably perish in a harsh winter, Ratliff said.

Ducks being trapped

Animal control officers have trapped about 15 ducks and found homes for them. Several more ducks were grazing on corn kernels in a large trap yesterday on the shoreline.

"Our object is to be kind to these ducks," Ratliff said. "They can't fly away and find food. They are domestic and need to be cared for."

Ratliff has also posted whimsical signs. On a sheet of plywood, a painted goose holds a sign reading: "Please don't feed me. Honk if you love me. But quit with the food."

It is a tradition that will be hard to break.

"People have all the best of intentions, but this is causing major problems," said county Commissioner Dean L. Minnich, who recalled taking his children to the park and feeding bread crumbs to the geese.

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