Why my alarm calls work versus those used in prior studies that considered them ineffectual

A response to Dr. Scott Craven, UW-Madison Extension
Service, Wildlife Advisor.

I was able to obtain the 1991 paper you mentioned by Aguilera, Knight and Cummings, though
it took some time to find with the partial information. You wished to know how the Alarm
and alert Calls used on the Goosebuster call unit differed from the calls used in that study. If
I understood you correctly in our conversation, you wished to now why my calls might work
when that paper stated their use of broadcast of goose calls was less effective than the other test
strategy used. Where does one begin?
The test design compared screamer shells exploding in the midst of the geese on the water to
calls broadcast from car top speakers 50 plus yards from the geese. That’s like asking which
will be more likely to make you move – fireworks going off under your feet, or someone yelling
fire a block away. Yes, the screamers were more likely to cause the geese to move immediately,
just as they discovered. Both techniques they used failed to prevented geese from returning, so
whatever method was used was time and labor intensive and would have to be on-going for as
long as the habitat was attractive to geese. Thus, both failed in the long term goal of keeping
geese away. The Goosebuster call unit is placed in the immediate vicinity the geese use and
continues to play at prescribed times within a set of randomized time options without any human
intervention once it is set up. It is battery powered and uses solar recharging. I’ve left them in the
field for over two years without failure of the units. Once the geese were gone for good from an
area the sporadic calls played apparently prevented any geese from moving in or returning, for I
or others have continued to check for geese and failed to find them present. I speculate that the
alarm calls and alert call playback made the geese uneasy in the now unfamiliar setting, causing
them to move out of hearing range immediately if the did return.

How were my calls different from those used in the above paper and Mott and Timbrook’s 1988
study in Tennessee? Their calls were recorded by individuals with a passing familiarity with
geese and good intent. They were not recorded by someone with professional grade equipment
who had spent 7 years studying and defining the language of geese, sonographing calls and
defining the calls, their meaning, and how geese interpret them, and which components are
critical to recognition of calls and/or individuals. I did all that, and did it to the satisfaction
of Don Rusch to the point where he, as editor, permitted me twice the pages for my write
up in the “Behavior and Management of Canada Geese “ of that given any other author
writing for “The Proceedings of the Second International Canada Goose Symposium.”
Aguilera, etal., used a single alert call in their study. My dissertation research found that the
alert call is derived from a softer contact call, which transforms to an alert call by shortening
the interval between the calls to less than 10 seconds and increasing the volume slightly. They
had no interval since there was only one call. The alert call transforms to a warning call when
the interval is further compressed to less that 3 seconds and a rise in frequency and volume, and
a decrease in call duration occur. Both alert and warning calls are present on the Goosebuster.
Instinctive response to an alert call is for all members of the family or flock to assume upright
postures and search for possible danger, the cause for the original alert call. If it is seen and
perceived by others as a threat, warning calls begin and birds group together and begin moving
toward the safety of water, or start preflight calling and head flipping that precedes flight.
Aguilera, etal., did not define what they termed an alarm call, but were likely to have used that
of Mott and Timbrook which was, at best a dubious example of a human induced “distress call”
made by dunking a live goose up and down in a wash tub with at least one hand around the birds
neck distorting the sounds. The call bears no similarity to anything I recorded or heard in all my
work with the species. That call is the one on file at Cornell as a Canada goose distress or alarm
call. The car roof mounted speakers with which they broadcast the calls produced a volume well
above that of normal geese calling and one which will have resulted in extreme distortion of the
sounds, both factors that would permit the geese to readily identify them and habituate to those
specific calls if not forced to leave the area when they were played, which they were not force to
do. And, because water over 1.5 acre in size is generally where geese instinctively flee, to take
refuge when scared, the chance they would fly away from those “safety sites” in response to call
playback from a distant car was slim. My guess, knowing geese, was that geese left the smaller
ponds in the study, but were much harder to remove from the large ponds, though they did not
state that in details of the study.

They also used playback of a collection of geese calling as they took flight when disturbed. That
is not an alarm call, but a mixture of preflight and flight calls. It will cause some geese to take
flight themselves when hearing it, but in my experience does not leave the geese with a long
term sense that they should avoid the area in future. The alarm call I recorded can and often does
create a long-term aversion of the areas where geese hear it. Why? Because geese have evolved
to instinctively and readily learn to avoid areas where danger can and did approach unseen,
the only situations where the true alarm call is used. In my experience, if geese can see danger
approaching, they will use alert and warning calls, but never the alarm call. Only severe frights
that come without warning, or involve major pain have been found to create long term avoidance
of specific locations/situations in animals and humans: an avoidance that is housed deep in the
hippocampus of the brain and can not be unlearned. That should include geese, and apparently
does, based on my research so far. They appear to have excellent map memory skills that help
them avoid areas they have heard alarm calls, been injured or frightened in the past, – or simply
not tolerated and harassed. This same ability helps them relocate and return to safe refuge sites in
future years during migration, based on past experience.
Why should a playback of alert and alarm calls alone be able to remove geese permanently from
an area? Alert and alarm calls both cause instinctive responses requiring geese hearing them to
waken, stop feeding, etc to look for danger, before they can resume what they were doing. Geese
are like humans in that they want to rest and feed in areas with a minimum of disturbance. If
forced to come to alert postures every 15-20 minutes, they never get completely comfortable
before the next call comes. Even geese that did not leave on the first hour of use of the calls
have been regularly seen to abandon greens, tees and water holes at Oklahoma City golf courses
when the units were left in play and running for several days (unsolicited report from Dove Cote.
Wildlife Control Oklahoma City, OK.). Thus, the only time cost for humans was the 45 minutes
or so that were needed to set up the units used. If geese are moved far enough away that they can
not hear the calls from their new location, they will not return for longer than it takes for the call
unit to do another playback, before leaving again. If they move to another site within hearing,
i.e. another water hole on the course, they must be moved farther and a second call unit may be
needed to complete the task. I used three at Jefferson Country Club, Reynoldsburg, OH, to keep
geese away from five waterholes and greens/tees complexes.

Had Aguilera, Knight, and Cummings, or Mott and Timbrook known more about animal
behavior in general and specifically about goose behavior, they would have known that sporadic
use of calls, screamers, dogs, etc., would not promote long term avoidance of the local area they
were trying to move geese from. Five years of research and thirty years of hunting geese have
shown me that if you want to be sure geese leave and stay gone for prolonged periods- i.e. never
return- you must be consistent and dogged in making sure geese leave the area during the first 7-
10 days of effort. If allowed to return, they once again become comfortable with the site within
several hours and resist leaving. If geese are pressured heavily for 7-10 days and never allowed
to return and feed or rest, they will abandon that area and find another somewhere else, develop
a bond to that site and seldom return. If a goose alarm call unit is still present and occasionally
playing at random times and intervals at the site they vacated, they will continue to avoid it and
not normally redevelop a habit of use of that site. At Jefferson Country Club, the wires to the call
units were cut by October 2005 mowing operations around the waterholes. We didn’t discover
that until the following February when the first few intruding geese were seen on the course, that
despite the fact that many geese had wintered on the course in prior years. I spliced the wires and
the geese left.

To the best of my knowledge, the Goosebuster is the only thing on the market that has been
shown to keep geese away once they have been forced to abandon a given area by either use
of the call units alone, or if needed, with harassment by dogs, humans, screamer shells etc., or
translocation. Humane removal of any last goose that refuses to or can not leave the site may be
required, for geese are extremely gregarious and even one goose left at the site and comfortable
there will result in eventual build up of geese once again. Zero tolerance for even a week to
ten days has, so far resulted in extremely good success at clearing geese from corporate parks,
and golf courses in my work and in unsolicited reports back from wildlife operators using the
equipment on urban problem geese. As further testimony to success of the units, I have reviewed
sales by Bird-X for the past three months (a time of year when sales normally slump). More than
thirty units have been sold and only two returned, indicating roughly 93 % customer satisfaction
on units that are fairly costly and would be sure to be returned if not effective. In addition, the
same Wildlife Control Company was indicated to have purchased three units over the course
of three weeks. Repeat business is a pretty good market place indicator of product success and
customer satisfaction.

Call habituation can be a problem if geese do not leave and continue to hear the same single
call repeated regularly. My recorded calls are continually altered in sequence of play, and
digitally altered in frequency, duration and interval as they are randomly played back in differing
sequence through four widely spaced speakers. The effect is three-fold: 1) the calls appear
to be made by a moving goose and do not always come from the same source or in the same
sequence, and 2) The calls do not sound alike and give the impression of several geese giving
alarm calls and alert calls at much the same time, as they would normally be heard in nature, and
3) they sound like calls produced by many different individuals not a constant repeat of exactly
the same call. Geese rapidly identify specific individual calls based on call frequency, interval
and duration and can come to ignore them if given often and without cause. I saw this in my
dissertation study geese population where I had one female that regularly (several times a day)
awoke from sleep giving an alert call after she was released into my study group. Within three
weeks, the other 17 geese had come to ignore her alert calls, but still went “heads up” and to
immediate searching for danger for alert calls given by the other flock members; onto their feet
and moving for warning calls, or to a dead run for water (flight for the flighted few present) for
alarm calls. The constant alteration of my calls in sequence, frequency, duration, and interval
as played back by the Goosebuster is the best method I know of to prevent habituation to them.
They have continued to be effective for the full 16 month duration of my Dayton Business
Park study and for over two years at Jefferson Country Club, so I think we have shown it to be
effective at preventing habituation in the long term.

A final point in favor of the use of these call units over the screamer shells used in the study
you referred to: Since 9/11, Columbine and other urban violence, gun shots and loud noises in
urban environments have be considered to potentially cause panic among people nearby. The
goose calls are broadcast at normal volume and most people don’t even notice them. If they do
hear them, they certainly do not induce panic but generally more pleasant sensations of being
surrounded by nature.

If there are any further questions you have, please feel free to contact me.

Dr. Philip C. Whitford