When we think of critters to control in the landscape, we often think of those adorable yet ravenous mammals: deer, rabbits, voles … chipmunks? But there’s a web-footed pest that’s made a mess of many a tidy garden, park or golf course, and this one’s a doozy to deal with. Stubborn, aggressive and federally protected, Canada geese can wreak havoc on well-manicured lawns and landscapes, nipping at the vegetation and leaving behind loads of noxious droppings.

In danger of extinction in the early 1900s due to hunting, egg harvesting and depletion of native wetlands, the massive birds have rebounded remarkably under the protection of the Federal Migratory Bird Act of 1918, which prohibits interference with the fowl except by specific permit. There are plenty of birds to cause plenty of trouble: From a low of only a few thousand in 1965, the population of resident Canada geese in the U.S. now is estimated to be 3 million.

And consider one word in that last sentence: “resident.” The Canada goose is still considered a migratory bird, but changing weather patterns, an explosion in population and more attractive places to nest have altered their movements to the point that some flocks may no longer leave. They’re here to stay, and we need to deal with them.

There’s no safe haven for geese when border collies are employed. Once the fowl are flushed off a greenspace and into the water, the dogs dive in and continue the chase.

What’s the damage?

First, there’s the annoyance factor – their loud and insistent honking can drive anyone to distraction. And they’re aggressive. Both male and female adults have been known to attack and injure humans. Should an unsuspecting worker unwittingly approach a nest, he or she is likely to encounter an angry and protective parent who is capable of causing gashes, cuts and bruises. Most injuries are minor, but what employee wants the nightmare of a goose attack? And what employer wants to deal with workers’ comp cases?

Of greater economic concern is the fact that geese can cause considerable damage in the landscape and on nursery property. The birds graze voraciously, plucking lawns, sports fields and greenspaces bare. They’ll occasionally strip shrubs, other grasses and succulents, and their relative weight and webbed feet can actually compact otherwise friable soil into hardpan.

Then there’s the unsavory topic of their waste. No one wants to see it; no one wants to deal with it.

What’s the solution?

Wildfowl-control products and methods abound, and you’ll want to assure the most success in the least amount of time for the lowest cost. That’s easier said than done, and what tends to work, according to the experts, is an integrated, long-term approach.

Depending on the size and scope of the problem, solutions may run from sprays containing compounds geese find repellent (some rely on mint, rosemary or artificial grape flavoring) to predator decoys to electronic devices that emit low-frequency sounds. Installing fountains in smaller ponds or lakes may deter geese from establishing a stronghold; planting reeds and tall grasses may help. Some communities have adopted swans, whose instinct to protect their territory makes them suitable foes for invading geese. Pyrotechnics, involving the firing of shell crackers, may be launched to alarm the fowl, although many communities require special permits for the discharge of firearms.

Border collies have an innate prey drive-an instinct-to stalk and herd. Even so, these working dogs must be specially trained and are often encouraged to practice their expertise when not actively employed.

But there’s another method that appears to be successful enough to send geese packing and encourage a whole new growth industry. And it involves dogs.

One community wins the battle

The frustration of dealing with flocks of geese nearly overwhelmed the residents and the resources of one small residential development in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. Regent Park is primarily a community of townhomes, with a few condominium buildings thrown in for good measure. Winding streets and cul-de-sacs encourage the quiet, life-in-the-slow-lane atmosphere, which is just how the homeowners like it. Built in 1964, the park has had time to mature and settle into an oasis of sorts, providing large shade trees, ample space for residential gardens and open parkland surrounding a 12-acre lake. The small body of water even boasts a tiny island; a rarity, we’re told, in this little corner of northeast Illinois.

What does it cost?

“Deputy Dog” Mickey waits for the cue to perform his duties.

The cost of ridding a property of geese varies widely, depending on the type of method employed, the size and type of the property – and whether you’re willing to tolerate a slight reduction in population or wish to go for the gold. It’s unlikely you’ll eliminate the birds entirely, but significant success can be achieved if you’re patient.

According to a report titled, “Economic Tools for Managing Impacts of Urban Canada Geese” by Nicole H. McCoy, cost should be weighed in consideration of the effectiveness of the program. For example, the author lists five alternative methods for wildfowl control on a golf course, with estimated cost and predicted population reduction:

1. Hazing. Cost $10,000; effectiveness 10 percent reduction

2. Repellent. Cost $20,000; effectiveness 10 percent reduction

3. Habitat modification. Cost $20,000; effectiveness 20 percent reduction

4. Habitat modification plus hazing. Cost $25,000; effectiveness 25 percent reduction

5. Habitat modification plus repellent. Cost $30,000; effectiveness 35 percent reduction

(A copy of the report can be downloaded at http://www.aphis.usda.gov/wildlife_damage/nwrc/symposia/economics_symposium/.)

The estimated cost in Regent Park – using border collies and nest management – is $1,000 per month; 6 to 7 months per year.

The lake is the pride of Regent Park; so much so that countless thousands of dollars have been spent on various erosion-control projects in an effort to save Duck Island. The tiny dot of land is home to a few struggling trees, plenty of raggedy shrubs, some decaying coir logs, ornamental grasses – and goose nests. For years, Canada geese, no longer migratory in many areas of the upper Midwest, have made Regent Park their home. And for just as many years, the acres of lawn and the little island have been beset by their grazing and … other activities. As recently as a decade ago, it was difficult to stroll around the lake without encountering both aggressive geese and their rather toxic waste. Within just a few seasons, however, the goose population plummeted, the lawn and shrubs recovered, and residents can meander to their hearts’ content.

What happened? The homeowners’ association grew tired of wasting time and money on goose-control solutions that never worked, including a cannon whose report blew retirees out of their afternoon naps and nearly caused several heart attacks. Then they hired the Geese Police.

Vid Rapsys is captain of the “Illinois Precinct” of Geese Police Inc., a franchise goose-control company headquartered in New Jersey. When he began working at Regent Park in October 2000, he says, “there were 25 nests on the island,” a space that would normally support less than half that number. The homeowners’ association had obtained a permit to disturb the eggs as a means of long-term population control, but the efforts were only partially successful. “Nest control – treating the eggs so they won’t hatch – is actually performing population control,” Rapsys explains. It’s part of the overall action plan, but it’s the combination of nest treatment and Geese Police “deputy dogs” that has virtually eliminated the problem.

Rapsys’ border collies are a wonder of instinct and training tailor made for goose control. They’re working stock dogs, trained in the traditional Scottish herding commands that encourage the dogs’ natural abilities to control other animals. “Every species of dog has a ‘prey drive,'” Rapsys explains, which moves each breed to approach prey in a particular manner. “The border collie’s prey drive is predicated on stalking. Their heads are down, their hindquarters are up, and they’re staring at the herd. The stock will move in one direction or another because a stalker is staring at them.” Essentially, the dog tells the geese where to go, and Rapsys’ dogs tell the geese in Regent Park to get off the parkway and into the lake.

But it doesn’t stop there. Once the flock thinks it’s safe in the water, the dogs dive in and swim toward the birds. For the geese, there’s no escape – except to fly away.

The border collies don’t harm the birds, as other species might be tempted to do. Their instinct to herd means they’re always working to gather the flock and return it to Rapsys. It doesn’t matter to the dogs that that they’re unable to do so; their reward, according to Rapsys, is pleasing their handler. And more work.

Geese are pretty wily, and they don’t fall for this if it’s a one-time deal. Any of the hundreds of goose-control companies will tell you it’s a long-term “training” program – training the geese, that is. Satisfying results can be seen in a matter of a few weeks, though. Typical contracts may run six to seven months of the year, with dogs and handlers visiting daily in March through June and beginning again in September through November. At the beginning of Rapsys’ work with Regent Park, he and his dogs performed “two to four times a day, seven days a week” for the first few months. His dogs worked the geese while he kayaked out to the island to shake the eggs or coat them with oil to prevent incubation.

“We try to visit so often,” Rapsys says, “that the pairs decide on their own to go someplace else. The ones that do nest on the island; we treat those eggs and nests, and typically after one or two seasons of having no success [in that location], the pairs look elsewhere.”

But it’s the dogs who’ve made it clear that there’s no safe haven for geese in Regent Park, and the problem’s really not a problem anymore. Residents are thrilled with the results. Just a few years ago, there were hundreds of geese living and breeding in the park. This spring, fewer than a dozen visitors were spotted, and Rapsys, who is still under contract for ongoing maintenance, was able to reduce his visits to once or twice a week. “The geese now believe that there are predators around all the time,” he says, “and now it’s become a maintenance job during the heavy seasons.”

As both managed landscapes and the goose population continue to grow, there’s bound to be conflict. But a reputable wildfowl control company that employs trained handlers and remarkable border collies may offer the most successful, most sustainable solution.

Finding help

Although you may be tempted to do it yourself, it’s best to use a professional who is trained in a number of methods to reduce problems with geese. An integrated approach likely will be more effective than a quick fix, and if the geese you’re dealing with are resident – that is, no longer migratory – managing the population will take a bit of time. But the results are well worth it.

Following is a list of web sources to get you started on the road to a goose-free landscape. American Nurseryman does not endorse any in particular, nor does a company’s absence from the list imply a negative impression. If you’d like to add your suggestions, visit us at our Facebook page and share your thoughts. Find us at http://www.facebook.com/AmericanNurserymanMagazine.

Sally Benson is the editorial director of American Nurseryman. She can be reached at sbenson@mooserivermedia.com.