Wild goose chase
April 29, 2016 | Todd McLeish
Canada geese are pooping machines. About every four minutes throughout the day they defecate, regardless of where they are and what else they’re doing. As a result, the familiar birds can be a significant cause of water quality degradation in local ponds and a messy problem for those walking at golf courses, athletic fields, suburban parks and anywhere there is plenty of grass for the birds to graze on.
It’s a problem the Wanumetonomy Golf and Country Club in Middletown has been fighting for years. “After the geese spend much of the winter on the course, by spring every inch of the property was covered in a blanket of goose poop,” said Curt Vannah, a board member at the club. “Early season golfers would have it caked all over their shoes.”
Last year Vannah took on the challenge of resolving the issue for the club, eventually settling on a large orange remote-controlled device called the Goosinator that has succeeded in keeping the golf course nearly goose-free for more than a year. “Look at our golf course this spring, and compared to past years we’ve got about 90 percent less goose poop.”
But the Goosinator is not the answer for every property, in part because it’s expensive and requires someone to operate it regularly.
That’s why Kat Zuromski is helping address the issue of nuisance geese all around Rhode Island. A biologist working for the Southern Rhode Island Conservation District, she is leading workshops to educate the public about the environmental, economic and aesthetic problems geese can cause and what residents can do about it.
“It’s a human-caused problem,” she said. “We’ve created habitat for them with our lush lawns, and people feed them, so it’s something we need to do something about. It’s not normal for geese to stick around Rhode Island year round, but now we have populations of resident geese who nest here and don’t link up with the migratory populations because the conditions here are so good.”
Zuromski points to poor water quality as the major problem caused by too many geese, but she also says they can be aggressive, transmit diseases, and destroy crops.
She said she hears lots of people complaining about geese, and it’s a problem that can be difficult to solve. Geese are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, so they cannot be killed without a permit. They can be hunted in season, though hunting is prohibited in many urban and suburban communities, so it is often not an option. They can be legally harassed to encourage the birds to leave an area, and in addition to the Goosinator, some golf courses have been successful at using dogs trained to chase geese.
The method Zuromski advocates is oiling the birds’ eggs, which kills the embryo and prevents the birds from reproducing. Anyone who registers on a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website is allowed to oil goose eggs, but doing it just once doesn’t solve the problem.
“It’s a long process, which is why we’re trying to mobilize communities to carry on this work,” she said. “It has to be done over the course of years to make it effective. If people carry on with these efforts, over time the resident geese may link up with migratory populations and leave. That’s the end goal.”
Not everyone agrees that Canada geese are a problem, however. Scott McWilliams, an ornithologist at the University of Rhode Island who earned his doctorate studying geese, called it a problem of public perception.
“Do we have too many geese that are resident on the landscape?” he asked. “No. There is plenty of habitat available for them, and they’re not having a negative impact on the environment from a natural science point of view. It’s a question of people’s willingness to tolerate them. We manage geese in the state in part due to public perception that they’re a problem.”
McWilliams agrees that Canada geese are a nuisance on golf courses, turf farms and athletic fields. He also agrees that the animals can degrade water quality in local ponds. He also doesn’t object to “additional controls” on the goose population, like efforts to oil their eggs, as long as it doesn’t affect the health of the entire goose population.
Josh Beuth, the waterfowl biologist at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, said that about 15,000 to 20,000 Canada geese winter in Rhode Island, and 5,000 or 6,000 remain here to breed in the spring and summer. Newport County has the highest density of geese in the state, due largely to the number of golf courses and agricultural fields located there, but also because of the limited hunting that takes place.
“We have liberal hunting seasons, but in areas like Aquidneck Island where there isn’t much hunting, there’s no way to reign the population in, and it’s going to continue to expand until something else is done,” Beuth said.
He provides residents with a packet of information with a wide range of lethal and non-lethal recommendations for controlling nuisance geese. But he also points out that geese are a valuable natural resource in the state. “Canada geese are native wildlife, so we don’t want to just get rid of them,” he said. “They have their place here. It’s just a matter of finding that balance between nature and people.”