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Year-Round Canada Geese Create Year-Round Headaches

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Non-migratory Canada geese are causing a problem for people and the environment.
Doug E. Fresh
Non-migratory Canada geese are causing a problem for people and the environment.

What happens when things that everyone expects to migrate just, well, don't? Much like an unwanted house guest who overstays his or her welcome, non-migratory Canada geese set up shop year-round. This causes problems for humans and the environment alike.

Swimmers and geese try to share the beach

Selby beach in Edgewater, Md. is a serene place. Jamie Phillips, who's here with her granddaughter and niece, says she visits often. But recently, her beach was closed for a while due to high levels of bacteria in the water. Fifty feet away, the cause is not hard to find.

"Oh yeah, there's crap all over the ground," says Phillips.

Canada geese have left their mark here.

"They are doing nothing but polluting the water – they come in flocks of 30, 40, 50, 60 and when they do their duty, it's doing nothing but putting bacteria where our kids can't go in," she says.

The birds produce a pound of bird poop every day, and it adds up fast.

"There's too many bad things happening with the water and people getting sick, and I just don't want it for my kids or the community's kids," Phillips says.

Erik Michelson, executive director of the South River Federation, says the bacteria problem is widespread. But the Canada geese that cause this are probably not from Canada, he adds.

"There are resident geese that have set up shop that basically are non-migratory that stay in these areas and make messes all over the place," says Michelson. "And they create hazards for swimmers."

One breed of bird has made the East Coat a full-time home

Migratory Canada geese spend the winter here, and then go north for the spring and summer. But the geese Michelson is seeing now are here year-round, and they bother more than just people.

"The geese often feed on aquatic grasses, which are already very stressed in terms of water quality issues," says Michelson.

Aquatic grasses have long suffered in the Chesapeake watershed. They are essential, however, to the health of the bay. They reduce erosion, oxygenate the water, and are a habitat for young fish and crabs.

"The ecosystem adapted under a regime where the birds flew in during the winter, did their feeding and mating and that sort of thing, and then left," says Michelson. "Whereas now, we've got this continual pressure on the resource.”

But why wouldn't these geese migrate?

Larry Hindman, a waterfowl project leader with Maryland's Department of Natural Resources, says the non-migratory geese are genetically different from the migratory Canada goose populations.

"They basically are descendants of races of Canada geese that originated in the upper Midwest and southern Manitoba, known as giant Canada geese," he says. "Through evolution, those types of birds never did move very far."

This particular breed of geese came to the east coast thanks to people.

"Well in the early 1900s, some hunters purchased geese from the Midwest and used them as live decoys in an attempt to lure migratory geese in the fall to gun range," Hindman says. In 1935, hunters were no longer allowed to use live decoys, so they let their birds go; the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service purchased some of them for wildlife preserves.

Whereas there were 20,000 non-migratory geese in captivity on the East Coast in 1935, over the years, that number has increased to 1.5 million birds today, says Hindman. That's more than the migratory geese that pass through every year.

'Geese Police' herd flocks away from sensitive areas

In Maryland, liberal hunting regulations have reduced the goose population, especially in rural areas where their numbers have fallen by half during the past decade. But in suburban and urban areas where hunting isn't practical, legal, or accepted, the birds continue to increase in number, not to mention in nuisance.

"We get a lot of calls during nesting season -– emergency calls being like 'oh my gosh there's a goose swooping down attacking people,'" says Dave Marcks who runs a company called Geese Police. "They clog up the mowers, erosion problems, attacking golfers, algae in the ponds."

Marcks and his squad will sometimes oil eggs to keep them from hatching, but mostly, they use border collies to drive out goose populations without harming them.

"We drive around and herd geese all day," he says. "It's literally a wild goose chase."

His brother Doug says not everyone resorts to such a humane approach. While the geese are protected by International Migratory Bird Treaty Act, permits can be obtained to capture or destroy the birds, or -- as the Marcks brothers do -- sometimes treat the eggs to prevent hatching.

"Certain government agencies are allowed to go in, round them up and gas them and feed them to the homeless," he says. "We hear that happening in New York state. Around here, we hear of different areas where the police will come in with silencers and round up a bunch who are molting and kill them all. We don't do that; we like to move them to somewhere else."

With a few commands, two collies -- Scott and Max -- run off a flock of geese from a business park, which means a few geese gone for the moment. But with many, many other gaggles of geese choosing to call this region home, the Marcks brothers say business is booming.

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