Where manicured golf courses and neighborhood ponds abound, so do the geese. Thriving in the urban and suburban habitats of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, geese are waddling in the streets, pooping in the ponds and congregating dangerously close to highway off-ramps long after they should have migrated elsewhere.
In fact, there are two types of geese in this region — those that leave and those that don’t. Resident geese, as they’re called, are not just geese that got lazy and decided to forgo the trek. They actually are genetically different from their migratory counterparts, said Larry Hindman, waterfowl project manager with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
Brought from the Midwest to the mid-Atlantic in the early 1900s, these geese were first used as live decoys to attract migratory Canada geese until such practices were outlawed in the 1930s. Programs in the ’30s and ’50s brought more of the birds to wildlife refuges to boost their populations, which have grown.
These resident geese, which don’t usually fly farther than necessary to avoid bad weather, are actually larger than their migratory cousins, and they lay more eggs. They tend to prefer urban areas where they find cut-grass habitats aplenty and not nearly as many hunters.
Many residents consider their large populations — and the pound of poop one bird can produce per day — to be a nuisance, which is what first led to programs aimed at reducing and controlling their numbers. Not only can the birds be dangerously protective of their nests and present traffic problems, they are perhaps most infamous for the feces they leave behind. It’s on sidewalks and playgrounds, pools and beaches and more than a few portions of the Bay.
So does that mean their presence presents a water quality problem?
Not necessarily, wildlife experts say.
“A lot of people assume that they are” a water quality issue, said Gary Costanzo, migratory game bird project coordinator with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. “They probably aren’t, in most cases.”
“If you have a large number of geese on a small area, they can be. But it’s usually just a nuisance and something that people point to because they see a lot of droppings.”
Hindman agrees. “It’s just not the smoking gun everybody thinks it is,” he said.
Though geese might not be the pollution problem some perceive them to be, their large populations do present environmental and other issues throughout the watershed and in other portions of the country where the resident species have become populous.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service first issued an environmental impact statement specific to these resident species of geese in 2005. The EIS states that these geese “have undergone dramatic population growth and have increased to levels that are increasingly coming into conflict with people and causing personal and public property damage.”
The document defines resident geese as those that are nesting in the United States in the months of March through June or reside in these states between April and August, rather than migrating to Canada or Alaska to nest.
The EIS allows local jurisdictions to deal with large goose populations in more urban settings where hunting is not appropriate. In much of the mid-Atlantic region, residents can get a depredation order that allows them to remove or destroy the eggs and nests of resident geese in the spring.
One of the more effective methods used in this region involves covering the eggs with a food-grade corn oil — which is non-toxic to the environment — to keep them from hatching. This is often more effective than removing the eggs, because the goose would likely nest again at that site or another. The order also allows people to shake or prick the eggs, or replace them with something similar in shape and size.
Facilities like golf courses and airports — where the geese become a particular hazard — have more options for dealing with unwanted populations. Hindman said some golf courses in Maryland have obtained federal permits to host hunting sessions during off hours to control populations. Private property owners with
serious geese problems can obtain similar permits.
The National Park Service is seeking public comment on its plan to recruit border collies to “haze” the geese that often flock to the National Mall in Washington, DC. The dogs will be used to irritate the birds and encourage them to leave, not to harm them, a Park Service statement said.
“More than a nuisance to pedestrians, the droppings damage the pumps and filters of the Reflecting Pool…and their feces have the potential to create a public health hazard,” the statement said.
Outside of urban areas, liberal hunting seasons have done their part to keep resident geese in check. Maryland allows for more than 100 days of resident goose hunting, with hunters allowed to bag as many as five birds in some places. Hindman said resident goose populations in the state are estimated at 50,000, down from 80,000, thanks in part to the additional “tools” for controlling them that have come into practice the last decade.
Virginia began adding special seasons that target the non-migratory birds in the early ’90s, Costanzo said. The population of resident geese in the state is estimated at 140,000 and has stayed around that number for a few years, Costanzo said.
Farmers have additional hunting and land protection options through the U.S. Department of Agriculture to deal with the geese that like to snack on their turf, soybean and corn crops.
While hunting and other programs help keep goose populations under control in rural areas, Costanzo said the issues they present in urban areas can be fairly constant. He said his department will deal with an overpopulation in one neighborhood or in a particular park — often associated with residents feeding the birds and otherwise providing them ideal habitat — only to have the population move to another part of town.
Tara Sieber, regional TMDL coordinator for the Shenandoah Valley office in Virginia, said geese are often a part of the discussion in the town hall-like meetings that kick off the process of establishing TMDL (total maximum daily load) pollution limits for a specific watershed.
The process relies heavily on volunteers who count wildlife and estimate the presence and pollution contribution of certain species, from deer to domesticated dogs. Geese are often a part of the equation, especially in more suburban areas, Sieber said.
“For geese, we talk about whether they’re here in the off season, the winter or the summer. More and more we hear from people that there is no off season because we have so many overwintering geese populations,” she said.
Sieber said a recent TMDL process that used volunteers to assess goose populations — and their contributions to water pollution — estimated that geese deposited their feces directly into the streams in that area 25 percent of the time, as opposed to on the shore or elsewhere in the watershed.
“So that’s a direct source of bacteria into the stream,” she said. “We do the same [calculation] with livestock to assess how often they’re directly depositing into the stream.”
Sieber said the birds were a large part of the discussion for a TMDL in Winchester that was set into motion almost a decade ago. There, a stream that’s a tributary to the Potomac River runs through the city next to Shenandoah University, where the lawns were beautifully manicured and kept mown right up to the stream bed.
The mown grass looked nice, but it also provided the geese easy entry from the sidewalks, where their poop was a constant problem, to the water.
“The university realized that, if we were able to rehab and restore some of the streams, not only are we getting rid of this nuisance population of geese, which everyone hates [because of their feces on sidewalks] but it’s better for water quality,” Sieber said.
She said planting thicker brush and trees alongside the stream helped to solve both problems near the university.
In other portions of the watershed, the eating habits of geese have presented more of a water restoration problem than their feces. Hindman said the voracious grazing of resident geese nearly destroyed some of the wild rice restoration projects to improve water quality on the Patuxent and Anacostia rivers.
In response, oiling goose eggs that are found in nests on the shores of the Anacostia is now a part of wetland restoration efforts, as is installing net-like fencing around grasses growing in the water to prevent geese gliding in for a landing from mowing them down, which causes further damage.
Kevin Munroe, manager of Huntley Meadows Park in Fairfax County, VA, said geese that stick around longer than they used to can present water quality problems for sensitive wetland restoration projects, such as the $3 million one recently completed at his park.
“Whole communities of plants are being decimated because, instead of a goose coming in for a couple of weeks in the spring and a couple of weeks in the fall, he now sits there for 12 months and eats and poops. So it’s changing the water chemistry,” Munroe said.
Hindman and Costanzo acknowledge the problems geese can present to such restoration projects or even near highways where authorities are trying to sow new grass seed. But in residential areas, they said, high population problems often are reduced or go away entirely once people stop feeding the geese.
Even in areas of the watershed where it’s difficult to monitor or prove the impact of large populations of geese, Sieber said they are often part of the discussion. If residents of subdivisions where goose poop is a constant eyesore on sidewalks don’t bring it up first, then farmers who are being asked to fence cattle out of their streams probably will.
“I think pretty much that in all the cases the goose population has been increased after talking to stakeholders,” Sieber said. “We come up with an estimate (of population) and we take it to them and they say, ‘No, no, no.’ They say, ‘They never go away.’”