On a wild goose chase

On a wild goose chase

What would you do? Tell Urbana's Tom Kacich here

On Sunday morning bird walks in the spring, guide Greg Lambeth leads groups of bird enthusiasts through Crystal Lake Park and Busey Woods in Urbana in the hope of seeing a variety of species that live in or migrate to the area.

With his well-trained ear, Lambeth listens for the robin-like song of the scarlet tanager, the raspy call of the green heron or the low, sonorous hoot of a great horned owl.

But many times, they're drowned out by another sound — the honking of Canada geese that have invaded the park and made it their home.

The geese make their nests on the two small islands in the 10-acre Crystal Lake, a prime area to spot birds.

"They are very territorial, so they fight with each other incessantly. And when they fight, they're extremely loud," said Lambeth, who has led the walks for more than a decade. "It's really hard to hear the small birds when the geese are 50 feet away from you making this incredible racket."

While Urbana Park District officials don't mind having a few geese around, they said the number — more than 80 at last count — is detrimental to the aesthetics of the city's oldest and largest park.

"The biggest problem is they defecate all over the park," said Derek Liebert, the district's planning and operations superintendent.

A single goose can produce up to 1 pound of feces a day, he said. "It's getting all over the park grounds — our paths and picnic areas, our boat docks and the boats and in the lake. People recognize Crystal Lake as one of our signature parks for its size and diversity of offerings. When we asked our park district advisory committee for their perceptions of the park, the concerns about the geese and the overall appearance of the lake was at the top of the list."

Officials have used several methods to try to manage the population and minimize the damage, with varying degrees of success. Now, they're looking at adding some new ones, including altering the geese's habitat and a somewhat controversial tactic — destroying goose nests and eggs.

The geese's impact on the park, history of management efforts and recommendations from the state Department of Natural Resources will be the topic of a March 4 public meeting at the Anita Purves Nature Center.

"We expect that through increasing our management efforts and future lake-shore restoration, we can provide a much more attractive, balanced and healthy ecosystem for the park's many visitors," Liebert said.

Fly south? Why?

The majority of the park's residents are Giant Canada geese, one of several subspecies of Canada geese, according to Roy Domazlicky, urban waterfowl project manager for the state DNR.

In the early 20th century, biologists believed this subspecies was in danger of extinction due to alterations to their habitat and overhunting. After a small population was discovered in Rochester, Minn., in 1962, federal and state agencies bred them in captivity, then released them into their modified habitats.

"No one could have guessed how successful they would be at adapting to urban settings," Domazlicky said.

In 2014, the state DNR counted 96,000 Giant Canada geese in its annual breeding population survey. In recent past years, they have counted between 104,000 and 133,000.

The geese are attracted to areas with a water source, which provides protection from predators, that is surrounded by a food source.

"Geese are grazers that feed primarily on fresh, short grass," Domazlicky said. "They prefer our bluegrass, which is probably the most common turf grass you'll see. They will certainly make use of crops when they're young and the shoots first come up. And in the winter, they will eat leftover grain waste."

While some geese still migrate, Domazlicky said larger numbers remain in the same area throughout the year and only move to warmer, southern climates when a deep snow-pack makes it too difficult to access food.

"That's partly because of the general warming trend," he said of their long stays. "And it's partly because of human modifications to the environment that have made things like parks, golf courses and housing developments an ideal habitat."

And as the flocks — and resulting problems — have grown, the geese have gone from being regarded as a large, magnificent bird to Public Nuisance No. 1, at least by landowners and caretakers who must deal with them.

Watch your step

Just ask Matt Kuntz, superintendent of the Middle Fork River Forest Preserve.

"What really drives me nuts is we want our visitors to be able to walk through the grass in their bare feet and have fun, and that's a challenge," he said. "You really have to watch where you're stepping."

Kuntz said there's also a public health safety concern.

"I have three ponds, and one of them (Willow Pond) has an island, which the geese love," he said. "Unfortunately, it's our biggest pond, and it has a swim beach, and it's right next to our campground."

Kuntz tests the water quality regularly and has only had three bad samples in his 10 years on the job. He said those can probably be attributed to low water levels during a drought.

"I don't have any proof that it's from the geese, but it's always a concern," he said.

And not far away in Vermilion County, large numbers of Giant Canada geese are spending the winter on Lake Vermilion.

"There are thousands of them," said Ken Konsis, executive director of the Vermilion County Conservation District. "The problem with that is all of the excrement in the water supply."

Public health officials also share those concerns, said Awias Vaid, director of planning and research at the Champaign Urbana Public Health District.

"The droppings can spread disease, especially when it's in the water and people are swimming in or drinking the water," Vaid said. "However, we have not seen anything significant in our community to be alarmed."

In areas of Champaign, geese have walked into traffic and been struck by cars, according to city spokesman Kris Koester.

"We've had several calls to pick up dead geese that have been hit," he said.

'It's vile and toxic'

Janet Soesbe, who is on the front line at Crystal Lake Park, said the goose droppings problem has gotten worse in the last four years.

"I used to live on Franklin Street, which is in the park, and I'd walk my dog a lot," she said. "At a certain point, I had to stop walking my dog because there was so much poop."

Soesbe is also the Lake House manager. She and her staff spend a lot of time in the spring and summer cleaning up after the geese.

"In May, we're only open on the weekends, and at this point, (the geese) have already made their nests and laid their eggs," she said. "Three years ago, they started sitting on the boat dock. The last two years, they've been sitting on the boats themselves.

"We not only have to hose down the dock, but we have to scoop it up with a snow shovel and then scrub brush it off, and we have to do that to the boats as well," said Soesbe, who started taking pictures and sending them to the park superintendent.

"It's vile and toxic," added Soesbe, who said she had severe stomach cramps and gastrointestinal problems last Mother's Day weekend after accidentally inhaling feces when cleaning on a windy day.

Liebert pointed to another concern: a layer of duckweed and water meal, two free-floating plants that have created an unpleasant green sheen over the top of the lake, also a popular fishing destination.

"We've had people come out to rent boats, but leave after they've seen the lake," Soesbe said, adding they think it's covered in algae.

A lake management consulting firm analyzed sediment samples and determined nutrients from goose feces, as well as leaves, were fueling the pests' growth. Liebert said the firm recommended aerating the lake, which was done on a trial basis; treating the water with enzymes; and reducing the goose population. The grazing has also eroded areas of shoreline.

Now the park district is getting ready to launch a more extensive lake study this summer. Liebert said one of the recommendations will likely be to replant the lake shore with tall prairie grasses to deter the geese from the area — an expensive undertaking. Another could be altering the slope of the shoreline to make it steeper and more difficult for the geese to get in and out of the water.

"Geese are pretty lazy," he said.

Coyotes and collies

The park district has already used several methods to manage the situation, Liebert said. Staff spray Flight Control, a chemical repellent aimed at creating gastrointestinal stress, on the turf.

"The product also has a UV (ultraviolet) spectrum that the geese can see. They associate the appearance of the grass with feeling ill," he said.

Staff have also installed flashing light beacons in the lake. The lights mimic the glint of a predator's eye.

Other measures include installing fencing and planting pinwheels near the dock; strapping bungee cords onto the paddle boat to keep geese from sitting comfortably; and setting out coyote and owl decoys to try to scare them away.

Kuntz has applied the turf repellent, which he calls "goose juice." But, he said, it needs to be reapplied regularly and the cost adds up. He's tried everything, even bringing in a border collie.

"That doesn't do anything other than run them off; then they come back again," he said.

Konsis has used his "goose gun," a pistol that shoots a firework, which he said scares them away temporarily.

Lethal measures

Domazlicky said the best approach to managing the population is to use a combination of methods to harass, exclude and repel the geese and alter their habitat, and to use them at the right time of the year.

Then there are lethal management methods, including hunting, capture and euthanasia, and nest and egg destruction.

This year in central Illinois, people could hunt Canada geese from Oct. 25 to Nov. 16 and Nov. 26 to Jan. 31. The daily bag limit was two, and the possession limit six.

Domazlicky said a very limited number of permits have been issued to shoot geese at land around airports, where they endanger aviation safety, and around fields that have suffered crop damage from the geese.

"The damage has to be severe, and the farmers have to show they've made other efforts to solve the problem," Domazlicky said.

Recently, a limited number of "charity harvests" have been allowed, he added. In those cases, geese are captured during the moulting season and processed by a licensed poultry processor. Then, the meat is donated to charity, usually to feed the homeless.

The more common lethal management method is nest and egg destruction, Domazlicky said. He received about 500 requests for permits last year.

In that method, eggs are either shaken vigorously for about 60 seconds or dunked in corn oil to keep the embryos from developing and the eggs from hatching. Afterward, the eggs are placed back into the nest.

If the eggs are removed too early in the incubation period, Domazlicky said the female will lay new eggs. Once the incubation period ends, the eggs and nests are removed.

It's an effective way to keep the flock from increasing, he said.

Females will lay a clutch of five to seven eggs each year, Domazlicky said. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services programs, 60 to 70 percent of young survive to adulthood under natural conditions. And the survival rate is likely higher in urban areas, which offer added protection from predators.

Champaign's turn next?

The nest and egg destruction method has been used to control the geese population at Maynard Lake Subdivision, on Champaign's west side, for the last 12 years, said Rick Schroeder, a former board member and one of three men who addle eggs.

"It's a two- or three-person operation. I'm the one who actually does the dunking. It takes two other people to protect me from Mom and Dad," Schroeder said, recalling several occasions when the geese charged.

He said the method has kept the population of 60 or 70 from growing. The birds nest on an island in the small lake, where subdivision residents can swim, fish and paddle boat; along the shoreline; and even in a few residents' backyards.

"We're just hoping at some point in time, they will finally die off," he said.

Like the Urbana Park District, the city of Champaign is considering using the method to manage flocks that congregate at the Boneyard, Healey Street and West Washington detention basins and other areas, Koester said.

He said the city applied for a permit last year. But by the time it was approved, the eggs were too mature.

"We're preparing to ask the council for their cooperation in the next couple of weeks, so if we decide to go that route, we have that option," Koester said.

Konsis said as frustrated as the geese sometimes make him, he hasn't gone that route.

"There would be an outcry," he said. "People still love to come out to see the geese. They like to take pictures of them because they can get up close."

The Urbana Park District does have supporters, including longtime Champaign County Audubon Society member Beth Chato.

"They are a problem that need to be dealt with, and I think that's a reasonable and humane approach," she said.

The Humane Society of America also considers it a humane approach to managing Giant Canada goose flocks.

"We expect there will be some people who won't be happy about it," Liebert said. But he said if the park district spends hundreds of thousands of dollars on a lake-restoration project, "we want to try to make sure we've tried everything else that is readily available to us, and we feel like this is the next step to take."

He added the goal is not to eliminate the population. "It's to make it more manageable."

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cwdog57 wrote on February 23, 2015 at 8:02 am

was this "border collie" trained for geese hasing. you have to be consistant with this. not just one time. it is the recommended way of eradicating geese long term including changing the terrain. according to the conversation dept. not killing the geese. better be careful using that option. which also requires a special permit

ROB McCOLLEY wrote on February 23, 2015 at 12:02 pm
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Special permit requirements can be changed.

 

I got a questionaire from the Illinois DNR, perhaps two or three years ago, asking my opinion on Canada geese. Were they a nuisance? Would I support various measures for culling gaggles?

 

Assuming there are still hungry people in the world, I think we should start eating them.

Sid Saltfork wrote on February 23, 2015 at 7:02 pm

Rob, I agree with you this time.  Everyone should get a goose.  Extend the hunting season, or use professional hunters.  It would be an excellent protein supplement just as deer that are donated for feeding the hungry.

ohnoes wrote on February 23, 2015 at 8:02 am

There are non-lethal ways.  There is a natural substance found in grapes that to geese is like pepper spray, in fact it's packaged for the express purpose of deterring geese from gathering in parks.

Sid Saltfork wrote on February 23, 2015 at 7:02 pm

Where would they go?  They are already staying locally.  Sounds like putting Japanese Beetle traps on your neighbors' property.  You might rid them from C/U; but they would end up being a nuisance else where in the county.

ronaldo wrote on February 23, 2015 at 9:02 am

Kudos to the park districts for moving towards progress in eliminating this nuisance from our public, tax-funded open areas.

They're a health hazzard, a traffic hazzard, and don't dare let your young child accidently wander near one who just happens to have their evil spawn lurking near by - they WILL be attacked, and I've seen it happen more than once.  And remember, they have next to no natural predators in an urban environment, so their numbers increase like uncontrolled rat populations.

I say it's long overdue for a harvest. Don't merely chase them away and create a problem for someone else. A controlled bow hunt could do the trick over a couple weekends during goose season, and the meat can be donated to the Times Center, Daily Bread, etc.  Get some of the local smokehouses on board - Black Dog, Lil' Porgy's, Hickory River, etc. - to maybe even donate their smokers and expertise to prepare them for delivery to the charities. It's a win-win for the community.

mndyr wrote on February 23, 2015 at 10:02 am

I'm sure there is a non lethal way to get them out of the parks. I agree they can be a pain, but I also believe that animals are just as much as part of the planet as we are and should have their space to.

Local Goose wrote on February 23, 2015 at 11:02 am
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How many pounds of feces do you produce, Mr. Liebert? Because it sounds like a load.

Just another one-sided report from the anti-goose rag that is the News-Gazette.

ronaldo wrote on February 23, 2015 at 11:02 am

Sounds like it's perhaps just a little less than you do.  And I'm pretty sure he doesn't leave it laying around in putrid piles all over taxpayer lands.  Do you?

What is this "other side" of which you speak?  I've heard the mantra from the vocal superminority of Urbana.  Fortunately, it holds no water.

ROB McCOLLEY wrote on February 23, 2015 at 11:02 am
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For people who don't get the joke, this is a parody of the frequent commenter Local Yocal.

 

Hilarious.

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