Wild Goose Chase

A wild-goose chase, yes, but arsenal grows

By David Abel  |  GLOBE STAFF  |  
May 19, 2009 

In the distance, beyond the view of the drooling border collies, there they were, flaunting their vitality.
The troop of goslings, cute as could be with their golden down and high-pitch squawking, pranced behind their parents along the rocky edge of the Charles River, munching the well-tended grass and relieving themselves whenever they felt the need, oblivious of Len Ellis and his dogs, their stalkers on the Esplanade.
Ellis and his playful predators were otherwise engaged against another covey in the perennial battle with Canada geese, flocks of which continue to occupy broad swaths of the Esplanade and turn the city's front lawn into a minefield of excrement, despite years of efforts to banish them.
``They have everything they need here, plenty of grass, plenty of water, plenty of places to nest,'' said Ellis, 69, who has spent nearly every day of the last six years in a Sisyphean skirmish with the obstinate birds. ``You have to harass them. That's the name of the game - harass them until they don't want to be here anymore.''
Yet they keep coming back.
As a result, local officials are now considering more drastic methods before the molting season begins in June and the geese lose their flying feathers for several months.
At a meeting last week between the state Department of Conservation and Recreation and the Esplanade Association, officials discussed recruiting a volunteer force of dog owners who might be allowed to unleash their pooches to aid Ellis, who visits the Esplanade at most two hours a day and can only cover so much ground.
In recent weeks, workers from the US Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service have used special net guns to capture and then kill at least five overly aggressive birds, using carbon dioxide. The USDA already helps local officials keep eggs from hatching by coating them in corn oil - an effort that now takes place every spring from the Esplanade to the Public Garden to Jamaica Pond - but the oil has to be applied within a specific time frame or it is ineffective.
Monte Chandler, director of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service in Massachusetts, said his staff plans to continue using the net guns, which fire a net and create an explosive sound that helps disperse other birds. Chandler expects to kill more aggressive birds before the molting season begins. He said they have to be killed, because it is against the law to move geese from one location to another, since that could spread disease.
``For this to have an effect, you do have to reinforce the dispersal of the birds,'' Chandler said. ``We can't relocate them, so we euthanize them offsite. I would think euthanizing them with carbon dioxide is a lot more humane than being shot.''
Hunting them all isn't a viable option, in part because local officials do not see that as a humane plan and because it is difficult to capture them with net guns and using shotguns would violate local and state laws against using firearms in an urban area.
``Killing them is not the answer,'' said Linda Huebner, deputy director of the advocacy department of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. ``It's inhumane, and I would say, a temporary solution. If you have a goose habitat, you will have geese.''
Other ideas local officials have considered include spraying coyote urine around the park, which apparently scares the birds away, although it could scare people away, too. They have thought about erecting fences along the edge of the river, because the birds like to waddle in and out, but that would mar the view. They have also considered landscaping changes and increasing the number of signs to warn people against feeding the birds.
``The geese are not going back to Canada, I can tell you that,'' said Sylvia Salas, executive director of the Esplanade Association, a nonprofit group that helps maintain the 3-mile ribbon of parks. The association spends about $300,000 a year sprucing up the area, $24,000 of which pays for Ellis and his dogs to roust the birds.
Wildlife officials said the last count in 2005 estimated that nearly 40,000 geese were in the state, about 8,000 of them in metropolitan Boston.
``We've tried fake coyotes, but the geese are smart, and it doesn't take them long to figure out they're fake. All the poop is really concerning - I'm as bothered as anyone - and it presents a health hazard. So, we're considering our methods.''
Other options for reducing the geese population might be borrowed from local golf courses, which share the Esplanade's problems.
Jim Fitzroy, director of Presidents Golf Course in North Quincy, said that, aside from hunting, he has successfully dispersed geese with shotgun devices that fire blank shells and make explosive noises. ``If you use it in the evening and early mornings, when they congregate, it tends to be effective,'' he said. ``But if you're not out there all the time, you get geese.''
At the Brae Burn Country Club in Newton, one border collie keeps watch seven days a week. ``It's a cat and mouse game,'' said Bob DiRico, superintendent of the course. ``But we went from having a serious problem to no goose problem.''
Daryn Brown, superintendent of the Braintree Municipal Golf Course, had successfully established a hunting program, but he gave up on it several years ago after it became controversial. Now he uses a border collie and a remote control boat. The dog herds the geese into water that borders the course, and the boat, which travels 20 miles per hour, scares them away.
``They're a good team,'' said Brown, adding that the number of geese on the course has dropped from about 500 before the golfing season started in March to about 15.
H. Heusmann, a waterfowl biologist with the state Department of Fish & Game, said that what is needed is a regional effort, one that keeps the geese from flying from one park or golf course to another. He said many of the birds have lived in the area for years and will probably remain there until they die.
``The only answer in urban areas is to destroy their eggs and to coordinate that throughout the area,'' he said. ``This will take years.''
Until then, there's Len Ellis and his dogs, Fly and Lyn.
Every morning at about 6 and later at about 2 p.m., Ellis and his border collies scour the Esplanade from the Hatch Shell to the lagoon. When the dogs catch sight of the fowl, Ellis barks his orders and the dogs chase them into the Charles.
But the evidence of their difficult struggle is visible at nearly every step. The geese droppings are nearly everywhere, and as soon as Ellis and his collies walk away, the birds swim back.
``I'm like the insurance guy,'' Ellis said. ``I don't guarantee that the number will get to zero, but without me, there's going to be a lot more of a mess.''
David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.