Like so many other problems, the first step is always to arm yourself with the information you need to make the right decisions. In this article I hope to share this information and explore some of the techniques and common problems with managing geese and their hazardous waste.
First, let me acknowledge that there is rarely a quick fix or a single solution that will work in all situations. Geese are as numerous and widespread as they are because they are highly adaptable. They have moved into our urban areas in ways that seemed unfathomable a couple of decades ago.
It is not an unusual sight to see geese building a nest in the smallest parking lot garden, to the peril of anyone who parks in its proximity. This adaptability also extends to the deterrents that we use, which means they will learn and test deterrents which, over time, may become less effective not only at that site but at other sites. For deterrents to remain effective and be useful for everyone they need to be used correctly and at the correct time.
The lifecycle of the Canada goose is fairly well understood and is actually very important to the timing of deterrents. Most (there are starting to be some exceptions) Canada geese migrate south in the winter. How far they travel varies but many of them travel well into the southern states and some as far as Mexico. The time they are gone seems to be shrinking as they often stay here into November, or even December some years, and are back as early as March.
Once they are back, they will start scouting to set up a nest, and once the geese have started setting up a nest most will defend that site, but some will opt to move along to an easier place if they feel threatened. However, as soon as eggs are laid this changes drastically. The adults become very aggressive and protective, sometimes even to their own peril. Eggs are laid between March and June, and each batch can contain four to eight eggs. It generally takes about a month for the eggs to hatch. Within two days of the young hatching, they are moved onto the water, which offers them some safety from predators, since they are not yet able to fly.
Over the next couple of months the chicks will grow their feathers, and, once the feathers have grown in, the adults will begin to teach the young to fly in preparation for the fall migration. Then the cycle starts over again.
How does knowing this help us to manage geese? By identifying key parts of their lifecycle, when behaviour can be more easily affected, we can concentrate our efforts in these areas to lead to better results. For example, once geese have nested and laid eggs, getting them to relocate is almost impossible. Using deterrents will not only be ineffective but will probably also mean they will not work later in the season since the adults will have either tested or attacked the deterrent.
A common mistake
In contrast, both the site selection stage and right after the chicks have hatched are much easier times to influence their behavior. The most common mistake people make is putting out deterrents much later than they will be effective, and then leaving them in place long after they need to be.
Deterrents should be put out at the end of February or beginning of March, removed if a pair nests and reintroduced as soon as the chicks hatch. If it is not possible to have the deterrent out prior to the pair setting up the nest, wait until after the chicks hatch before putting out any other deterrents. This seems counter-intuitive but it will serve you better in the long run.
Why does it matter? Do we really need to manage geese on our courses and in our parks? Although geese can be aggressive in protecting their nests and chicks, most of these altercations can be avoided by keeping humans away from the nests. The biggest danger from geese is in fact the waste they leave behind. Goose waste, like all waste from warm bodied animals, contains E. coli. High geese populations are linked to beach closures every summer as their waste enters the water. Simply contacting goose excrement can be dangerous and can expose you to E coli, salmonella, listeria and many other pathogens.
Contacting waste can be as simple as taking off your boots, cleaning a mower or other equipment and can be a real hazard for all workers that manage turf and the equipment used to maintain it. The waste from geese is also unsightly and can be slippery when it accumulates. So, managing the waste they produce is just as important as managing the geese.
Deterrents are our main method of control for geese. There are many types of deterrents on the market and each of them is designed for a specific part of their life stage. When purchasing a deterrent, inquire about when it should be used and how it works most effectively. Deterrents can be predator decoys, visual deterrents, physical barriers and taste or odour deterrents. Each of these deterrents works best in a different way and in different situations.
Predator decoys are designed to make geese feel like they or their young are at risk from predators. One of the keys is that the decoy has to be a natural predator of the adults or young, and it needs to be moved often enough so that it seems realistic. Natural predators would include coyotes, eagles, alligators, bobcats and foxes. Owls, however, do not normally prey on geese or their young. As such, owl decoys, although widely available, are very ineffective.
Also know that even if the predator does not live in your area, such as alligators, it can still be effective since the geese don’t know they don’t live here but recognize them from migration. All of these predators are something that geese of all ages know to avoid. Often nesting adults will defend their nest against these predators, so again, timing is important. Use these once the chicks have hatched or before the pair have laid eggs.
Another common mistake with predator decoys is that they are not moved regularly enough. Many ground-based decoys now have moving parts, like moving tails, but they still need to be relocated at least every couple of days. If they are left in one place too long, they stop being realistic. The realism of any decoy can be compounded if you can add another element to the decoy.
Since most decoys are visual, try adding scent by using urine matched to the area. For example, with coyote decoys, you could purchase coyote urine at a hunting store to use in the area to add another level of realism to the decoy. Choosing predator decoys that move on their own, such as floating or kite decoys, if you are not able to move them regularly, can also help maintain the realism which will help keep them effective.
Effective visual deterrents
Visual deterrents change behaviour by creating an environment that is unfamiliar and irritating. Visual deterrents can create motion, such as pinwheels. These put geese on edge, which can be exhausting and cause the geese to move to an area that they feel safer and can let their guard down. Other visual deterrents are designed to reflect light in a way that mimics fire, such as iridescent tape. Since animals and birds instinctively avoid fire, they leave the area to avoid it. Visual deterrents work best when they are placed in visible areas with access to wind so they can move and have sunshine to reflect.
Physical barriers prevent the movement of the geese into specific areas. These could include fences and other physical barriers but could also include planting around the edge of the water. Planting taller grasses and plants around the edge of the water creates a barrier, since it can conceal predators. Especially when the chicks are young, geese tend to avoid these areas due to the possibility of hidden dangers.
If you are planning to use plants as barriers, be aware that adults may pull out new plants until they are established. Protecting the plants with fences until they are established and well rooted is important and can also train the geese that this area is to be avoided.
Scent and taste deterrents are still a developing area of deterrent, but they work by making food sources less appealing. These work primarily during the grazing stage, once the chicks have hatched. Generally, they do need to be re-applied on a regular basis until the geese realize that the deterrent will be a constant and move on to a more appealing area. These can be particularly helpful in deterring geese from grazing in specific areas such as greens.
Another technique that can be used with almost any deterrent is making one area of the property less appealing than another. In essence, you are telling the geese, “Over there is fine for you, but we don’t want you here.” On larger properties, and as geese populations continue to grow, this is often a more realistic approach. This can be a technique that can be used for particularly sensitive areas such as greens and tees or higher value areas such as beaches. This technique is about picking your battles instead of completely excluding geese altogether. If you take this approach, be clear what your goal is and make sure you communicate it to staff and guests so that everyone is on the same page.
Deterrents are not a simple solution to the growing goose problem in the turf industry, but they can be useful tools when used properly. Deterrents can also be used in combination, or rotated, to maintain their effectiveness. This also allows you to pick the deterrent that will work best for your given situation at the specific life stage of the geese.
With an adaptable species like the Canada goose, it is important to use new techniques so that you can find the right solution and prevent them from getting too comfortable with any deterrents that you are using.