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Dispersing Territorial and Nesting Canada Geese from Corporate Parks with Alarm Calls and Harassment

Dr. Philip C. Whitford, Biology Dept. Capital University, Columbus, OH 43209

Resident Canada geese have become a common problem in corporate parks all across the nation. Geese are attracted by the well-watered, fertilized grasses, and the ever-present ponds designers place around these building complexes for esthetics or as retention sites for run off waters from paved parking areas. The combination provides abundant food as well as safety from predators. Throw in a few shrubs and other plantings to nest in, and you have the waterfowl equivalent of Utopia. On top of that, such sites are usually in urban areas where hunting isn’t permitted. No wonder we have problems. As Kevin Costner’s character said in Field of Dreams, “If you build it, they will come.” Geese will prove him right about that every time- unless you are willing to work a bit to prevent them from making your commercial property their permanent paradise home.

As a bit of background on how my research in this area began, I offer the following. I am a member of the committee for the Grand Marsh Chapter of Ducks Unlimited, here in Columbus, Ohio.  Other members of my committee refer to me as “Dr. Goose,” and frequently introduce me to the banquet guests by that name, since I‘ve spent many years involved in Canada goose behavioral research. So, it wasn’t too surprising that I was asked at the fall 2001 DU banquet whether I could help solve a “goose problem” at a corporate park in Dayton, Ohio. I’d been testing some new sound equipment created in concert with the good folks at Bird-X Inc., 300 North Elizabeth St. Chicago IL 60607 (800-662-5021). We had good success with our first tests of the unit prototypes when dispersing geese on a large property near Columbus, so I said I’d be happy to look over the situation and perhaps give the project a try.

It turned out that the corporate park in question was 92 miles from the campus where I teach, which makes daily visits difficult when one has a full teaching schedule. Yet, the setting was perfect for a test study of our newly redesigned alarm/alert call units and the company promised both permission for the study and the cooperation and the assistance of their head of security operations. It was tempting as a second opportunity to test the equipment and find out whether it worked as well there as the first test promised.

On my first visit I met with property managers from both the 60 acre corporate campus that had originally asked for my help and also the neighboring 25 acre property. Less than 120 meters of undeveloped land separated the two complexes. As such, they shared most of the 120-130 geese originally occupying the two properties. A baseball diamond and an adjacent soccer field occupied much of the southern border for the larger property. Each corporate park had a pond and a history of geese nesting and residing year-round for over 15 years. Both companies considered the geese an extreme nuisance now that their numbers had risen and problems increased. Between the two properties there had been more than 50 nests the prior year.  The larger property had recorded 32 reports of goose aggression to people in 2001 with several employees sustaining injuries requiring emergency treatment at local hospitals and resulting in lawsuits alleging corporate negligence for not doing more to protect employees from geese. Add to that the cost of cleaning 1.3 miles of sidewalks and patios twice a day and constant vacuuming of entry hall carpets needed to control tracking of goose droppings into the buildings, and you have a good idea why the companies were so anxious to reduce their goose numbers.

Just to make things interesting, the other end of my primary test property bordered a road with a 35 acre apartment complex and a 2 acre lake on the other side – and, you guessed it, more geese! Here was a challenge to test my goose dispersing “Goosebuster” audio units that I just couldn’t resist. My logic was simple. I figured if I could get the geese to leave there, I could guarantee that the alarm and alert call combination could be made to work pretty much anywhere geese were found. Just to make things more difficult still, we ended up beginning the goose dispersal operation at the worst time of year to attempt to move geese- the start of nesting season.

We had planned to start the goose dispersal project as soon as I returned from teaching my early January reef biology class in Cozumel, Mexico. Hey, somebody has to take these tough, midwinter teaching assignments on Caribbean beaches full of scantily clad women, don’t they?

Well, the first setback on my return was a delay that resulted from difficulties of accomplishing some desired sound modifications to the Goosebuster prototypes, changes based on our earlier research efforts. Of course, they took longer than planned. Next, we waited for the migrant geese to arrive at the corporate sites’ ball fields. We figured they would join the residents and respond well to the Canada goose alarm and alert calls played by the Goosebusters. The idea was that they would incite the resident geese to fly off with them during the tumult of an alarm call-inspired panic takeoff of hundreds of geese.

We never found out if we were right in guessing the migrants would enhance response to the calls. It was a mild winter. The migrants never came, or if they did, they never stopped to visit on their way home.

We finally began the project the last week in February — two weeks after the geese had begun claiming and squabbling over nesting territories around the buildings and ponds. Of all times of the year, this would be the one I would be least likely to choose to start such a project. Experience says, once geese start defending territories – especially ones where they have nested for several years already– they display a tenacity even a pitbull would envy. Well, I’d wanted a chance to test the new units; this was definitely going to be a test!

We set up two “Goosebusters”on the 60 acre property, near areas where the geese congregated and two next to the 1.5 acre pond on the smaller adjoining property. In all prior field tests of the alarm and alert calls I’ve done, every goose within 150-200 yards had either flown off wildly or run (when flightless) to leave the area as soon as the calls were played. So, I was very surprised and somewhat embarrassed when the first group of geese we played the calls for only raised their heads in apprehension- with all the major corporate executives gathered to watch the process, no less. Slowly, geese began to gather into uneasy, milling groups as the sounds continued.  After about 5 minutes of this behavior the head of security for the property began to walk quickly towards groups of geese. One by one, each group took flight as they were approached. And, to the great surprise and delight of those who had tried unsuccessfully to get the geese to leave before, they kept on flying completely off the property. They told me how, on past attempts to move geese from the building areas without the alarm calls, the geese had only flown 30-40 yards and landed. That process was repeated over and over until the pursuer tired of the chase and the geese returned to where they had begun. With the calls playing, in 20-30 minutes we had the whole 60 acres cleared of geese.

We were still busily congratulating ourselves on the ease of our success, our triumph over the geese, when we ran into a little snag on the larger pond next door.  I turned on the call units— and geese on the water just raised their heads to look around. Geese on shore entered the water. They all moved to the center of the pond, but that was it. The pond was big enough that they apparently felt safe from predators and clearly didn’t consider humans a threat. I was flabbergasted. In 20 years of studying geese, I’d never seen such a lack of response to an alarm call from geese and found it difficult to understand. Yet, I was sure we could move them with a little additional effort. I went to the property manager and asked for permission to use cracker shells or to pull a rope across the water to force the geese to fly at the calls, figuring they could be trained to respond to the calls by using such techniques. To my surprise, given how emphatically they had stated they wanted to be rid of their goose problem, I was told flatly that the answer was “no.” I would not be permitted to do anything to harass the geese on that property. Period. End of discussion.

Well, at least that answer explained the lack of response from the geese on the pond. Now, I realized these geese had been completely protected from all harm and disturbance for 15-20 years on this property. They didn’t know what an alarm call was! They’d probably never had occasion to use them or hear them.  Suddenly, clearing geese off either or both properties didn’t look like it was going to be the easy task it had appeared after our success on the first property only hours earlier.

Now I was in a quandary. How do you successfully chase geese off one large corporate campus when many of the same geese are shared with neighboring complexes that won’t permit harassment in any form? Was it even possible to do such a thing? I drove back to Columbus that afternoon plagued with questions and with doubt that this project could ever be made to work. Near the end of my drive, a sudden epiphany came to me. I remembered something learned from my years of hunting geese, a reason to believe it could be done. In my experience, both migrant and resident geese rapidly learn which fields and lakes to avoid once hunting begins. They have to, or they don’t survive. Those fields and lakes appear to be remembered and avoided by the geese for weeks or even years afterwards.

How was that accomplished and why? As a biologist specializing in animal behavior, I have to admit we don’t really understand the thinking abilities of animals. Yet, we do know that Canada geese can only learn their migration route by flying it the first time with their parents, other geese, or even ultra light airplanes as in the movie “Fly Away Home.” From that, it is fairly clear that, over the eons, Canada geese have evolved the extremely precise place memory, sometimes called “mental map abilities” needed to travel between nesting and wintering areas; to return to specific daily feeding areas with abundant foods near refuges; and, even to recognize the precise boundaries of their nesting territories. By doing this, they avoid areas of predators, both human and animal; minimize energy used in territory defense; maximize their feeding efficiency; and can migrate back to precise past successful breeding locations year after year. All these things have helped the species survive – and expand- in a rapidly changing world. After thinking about all this, I realized the secret to making the “Dayton Project” work was going to be to find a way to use that “mental map” ability against them.

As a first step, I abandoned all efforts to get geese to leave the smaller property where harassment wasn’t permitted, since there seemed to be no hope of success there without that option to help initially move the geese. I moved one additional call unit from there to a third spot on the larger property, and focused all my efforts there since they had been first to ask if I help could rid them of geese. Besides, they had delivered on their promise to provide the full cooperation and assistance needed to make the effort successful on this very urbanized, and excessively human tolerant group of geese. For the first week of tests the three Goosebusters used were set on their shortest time setting and played shifting sequences of alarm and alert calls once every 5-10 minutes using a built in random timer function. Call units played 24 hours for the first days, and then were set for 6 am to 6 pm broadcast only, using standard outdoor electrical timers on the plugs..  No one complained about the sounds. They were loud enough to upset the geese, yet quiet enough so employees in the buildings didn’t seem to notice them. The head of security and I took turns on different days chasing off whatever geese returned over night or sporadically stopped to visit “the old home” during the day.  Occasionally he brought his Chesapeake retrievers, “Misty” and “Stormy,” to help chase geese and spare our legs. We quickly got rid of the majority of geese, all those non-breeders and transients that had no territories. Fewer than 15 geese were present at sunrise after the first 5 days – and they left readily at just the sight of either of us approaching. By the end of the week, just the sight of our vehicles cruising the parking lots sent them flying.

We were once again just about ready to declare our task complete and successful when the weather suddenly turned from a prolonged cold spell of windy, sub-freezing days to balmy 55o F warmth. As I had expected, since I knew we had begun our dispersal efforts after territories had been established, many of the territorial geese we had chased away in the first days suddenly appeared to remember it was nesting season. They attempted to return to their territories with the advent of spring-like weather. The battle was on. Roughly 25 pairs reclaimed and defended territories and started nest construction and egg laying. We chased geese – and they circled back to where they began. We learned quickly that it didn’t pay to chase the male of the pair. He acted as a decoy while the female returned to the nest. Once we focused on chasing the female, she was much more likely to abandon the nesting territory and leave the property after a few “escorts” to the border. If she left, the male went with her. The female chooses the nest site in geese, the male just follows and defends her. With our efforts, nesting goose numbers thinned fairly quickly until we got down to the last 4 or 5 pairs that insisted they were staying and nesting there. These geese flew up on the 4th floor roofs of buildings whenever we were in sight and dropped back to the ground whenever we weren’t.  It was a good question some days who was training who. One pair ended up making 7 nest attempts, another at least 5, laying 29 eggs between them. We shook eggs to addle them and left them in nests, but we also put rocks, sticks, owl decoys, or balloons in all nests within 2-4 days of finding them- before any full clutch of eggs could be laid. In all cases the geese abandoned those nests and either made another nearby or left the property permanently to find other places to attempt nesting.

We discovered several interesting aspects of goose behavior not reported before. We learned that when geese are exposed to frequent alarm and alert calls and harassed early in nesting they abandon their nests quickly.  As a result, we also discovered an important insight into goose aggression patterns. In the past, the property manager had been advised by DNR officials to delay nest destruction until the 3rd or 4rth week of incubation, to reduce renesting attempts. What we learned by changing our policy to immediate harassment of nesting geese, instead of late nest destruction, was that geese that abandon nests without being allowed to incubate them for 2-3 weeks never developed the strong nest defense behaviors that had led to the goose aggression problems of the prior years.

Was our attempt to reduce goose problems a success in the long run? I’ll let you judge that from the following information. With the sound units and our immediate nest harassment policy in place and continual efforts to keep geese off the property, there were no reports of aggressive geese and not one injury on the corporate property during the spring of 2002. That, undoubtedly, was a major improvement over the 32 instances of aggression and 2 injuries reported for this same complex in 2001.

Eventually, every last goose gave up on attempts to nest and left the property. It was early May before the final holdout from the roof gave up. However, by that time ”the goose patrol” process required only a few minutes of goose chasing a day instead of the 1-3 hours/day needed at the start of the project.  It was done just to keep any geese from returning or new geese from moving in to the inviting and apparently unoccupied habitat. Between the time before we began the project and our completion, average goose hours of use per day (number of geese present per day times average number of hours they were there) on the property dropped from an estimate of 16-1800 goose hours per day to fewer than 40, and finally to none.

Goose dropping counts on over a mile of sidewalks fell from pre-harassment/call use levels of a mean of 195.7 dropping fragments (over ½ inch long pieces) per 100 meters of walk to counts of less than 6 /100 meters for all of March, April, and May, a 97.8 % reduction.  The two daily shifts of sidewalk cleaning and vacuuming of entry halls of the six buildings were suspended within two weeks after we began and never needed to be restarted. The company’s savings on cleaning costs alone, not to mention liability insurance and legal fees, has more than repaid employee costs for time spent harassing geese. It would easily pay for several more Goosebuster units as well.  I have left the Goosebuster alarm/alert call units in place and set on their longest time between calls to help prevent geese from returning, or new geese from colonizing the site. So far, it’s been working exactly as planned. If and when a goose shows up on the outside security cameras, it gets an immediate escort from the property. Visiting geese have become few and far between. Strange geese are frightened off by the alarm calls, and the few local birds that habituated to the calls while sitting on the roofs have been taught by our harassment efforts that they are no longer welcome on the property they once called home.

So, we have a happy ending, and a valuable lesson learned. Right in the middle, between a corporate park and an apartment complex with better than 100 geese using them daily, lies a 60 acre corporate campus without geese, without goose droppings, and with happy property managers. I’m pleased to say that I have learned that, without doubt, geese can be trained to avoid specific areas with these alarm/alert calls accompanied by the right combination of deterrent actions. I’m also quite certain others will find it can be done much more quickly and much more easily if they don’t start the project after territories are staked out and geese preparing to nest.  Geese are most easily moved when they first arrive at a location. They arrive wary, on edge and ready to leave unfamiliar grounds at the first hint of trouble. But after they have been there an hour, a week or years they become progressively harder to move, and more likely to return if moved.  But, no matter how long they have been there, or recent work indicates that, if you make a concerted and continual effort, with the alarm calls and alert calls helping to keep geese from returning/marking the prohibited area, it can be done. Had lethal removal of the 4-6 pairs that kept returning had been permitted, we could have reduced the time spent in “goose pursuit” by more than 100 hours and accomplished the same final result in two to three weeks of effort. Yet, we did succeed and not a single goose was harmed in the process, proving that an effective, non-lethal removal option exists for removal of geese from urban properties.

(Just as a reminder to readers- Federal permits are required to addle goose eggs by shaking or oiling, but are not needed for any of the other harassment techniques we employed in this study)