Dog takes care of Carroll pond's fowl problem in a zip

Border collie ridding park of messy bird population

July 05, 2005|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

More intimidating than a green-eyed gator, speedier than a flapping goose, he's Zip, a streak of gray, white and black collie who hounds waterfowl at a popular Carroll County park.

Sporting a short coat that dubs him a "working dog," Zip races around Westminster Community Pond, hustling honking geese into the water. The birds hiss but don't venture ashore to tangle with the wiry border collie, who so frustrates the geese that many have flown off to another watering hole.

Dan Laxton, a former MCI employee, trained his 55-pound male collie to herd fowl but not hurt them.

"This is a really well-trained dog who knows how to frustrate these geese," said Henry Lysy, a frequent park visitor who organizes an annual fishing rodeo at the pond for young anglers. "He has really gotten things under control and been a real benefit to this park."

Man and dog succeeded where a menacing alligator decoy, official bans on feeding the fowl and a crunch for space - the geese were so profuse they could not all fit on the water - failed.

"The geese are gone and won't return because they fear a predator, a genuine live one, not a fake alligator," said Laxton.

A year ago, county officials plunked a fake alligator head into the pond, hoping it would scare fowl away. The gator replica looked fearsome, with thick green scales, glowing yellow eyes and toothy grin, but the immobile bobbing head quickly proved to be a hollow threat.

It took Zip to rid the pond, long a popular fishing, picnicking and jogging spot, of its goose infestation. Only about a dozen remain, and most of those are molting and cannot fly away for the next few months.

Richard Soisson, county director of recreation and parks, said the effort "is working well at keeping the geese away."

The deteriorating conditions at the pond, just off Route 140 in Westminster, last winter led to an experiment that tested Zip's mettle, Laxton said.

The 16-month-old dog had been training for about five months when he first set paws down in the park. On a frigid February morning, man and collie saw rotting feed and fowl droppings all along the pond's shore. Foraging birds had eaten the grass down to the roots, making the once-green shoreline a muddy morass. Their droppings also killed grass and kept seedlings from sprouting.

One county official called the 3-acre park a near-biohazard.

"There were so many geese that they could not all fit in the pond," Laxton said. "Hundreds were spread out over the grassy area. The droppings were so bad that I had to drive home in my stocking feet."

By Laxton's count, at least 450 geese and 350 ducks were befouling the park. Each bird produces about 1 1/2 pounds of droppings a day, he said. The muck reached such high levels that the county had to test soil and water to determine the park's suitability for human use.

The pond was murky brown from the bread and cereal crumbs disintegrating at its bottom. Bird droppings increased nitrogen levels in the pond and caused algae blooms that can sap oxygen from the water and kill fish.

Zip and Laxton, who has since founded Gone in a Zip, a goose-removal business, volunteered their services. They travel from their Frederick County home to the pond several times a week. Zip herds the geese onto the water and refuses to let them back on land.

"The grass is back, and the geese are gone," Laxton said. "You don't hurt or catch them. You just move them on. They pond-hop and can go as far as 300 miles."

David Feld, national executive director of GeesePeace, said the organization has found trained border collies to be an effective and humane method of solving wildlife conflicts.

"Used appropriately, the dogs can be effective," Feld said.

Border collies are a nonlethal solution to the proliferating goose problem in parks throughout the state, said Bob Beckett, assistant superintendent with the State Forest and Park Service.

"You have to start early in the season and use collies before the geese breed, so they don't stay," he said.

The breed has patrolled Columbia's lakes daily since 1997.

"We have found dogs to be very effective in reducing the goose population," said Chick Rhodehamel, vice president and director of open space for the Columbia Association. "The dogs have really helped us out on the lakefront where we have shops and restaurants and where the geese were making a mess. Using the dogs has resolved the problem."

At the Westminster Community Pond, the declining goose population has brought back strolling along the shore, lolling on the park benches and playing children on the tot lot.

Zip will frequently drop a stick at a stranger's foot, hoping for a game of toss.

Paulita Scott and her 2-year-old son, Noah, said the park and particularly the playground are much improved.

"Noah has never fed the geese, but he likes to watch them swim," Scott said.

Lee Decker often stops at the pond to break up his commute from Eldersburg to Hanover.

"I like it here, but you have to watch where you walk," he said. "It was a problem, especially with children. There will never be an end, but there sure has been a reduction in the mess."

The pond cleanup proved Zip's prowess and prepared him for steady, lucrative employment, Laxton said.

"Dogs are more humane than other solutions, and safer and less costly than repellants," Laxton said. "Zip is probably the only repellent that works."

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