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Ruffled feathers: Geese cause headaches across county

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Like some kind of biblical plague, Canada geese seem to be everywhere in Johnson County.

Flocks of geese have taken over neighborhood ponds looking for food and water. The birds are picking through the stubble of farm fields, and snatching any bits of grass that poke through the snow.

In their wake, the geese leave an overwhelming amount of disease-spreading waste. The birds can do major damage to landscaping, lawns and other property.

Spring is a key season for the overwhelming number of Canada geese in central Indiana. Nests will be made, eggs will be laid, and the birds can become overly aggressive protecting their young.

Homeowners and businesses have options to control the geese, ranging from cordoning off their property to planting different types of grasses to legally destroying the eggs.

“We’re expecting a lot of calls from people, with people wanting to get outside and get into the parks, the animals are going to get more aggressive,” said Scott Harter, owner of Indiana Wildlife Management.

Indiana is home to seven species of Canada goose. But the most common is the giant Canada goose.

According to Indiana Department of Natural Resources estimates, Indiana has more than 120,000 Canada geese. That wasn’t always the case, as hunting and the destruction of wetland habitats left their numbers dwindling early in the 20th century.

Conservation efforts help foster the populations back to a healthy number. The increase in small ponds in residential neighborhoods, as well as business developments, gave the birds a ready-made habitat, said Shannon Winks, DNR private-land biologist for Johnson County.

“People have created the ideal habitat for Canada geese in urban and suburban areas. They’ve planted the turfgrass that geese love to eat, built retention ponds, which give them the water they need. We’ve limited hunting and people feed them,” she said. “When you couple and add up all of those together, it creates an ideal situation for geese.”

But as the birds have become more numerous, the flocks have become more and more of a nuisance to humans.

A flock of 50 birds can eat entire yards of grass, down to the roots, Winks said. And a single bird can produce up to two pounds of droppings a day. Multiplied by a large flock, that presents a health hazard in suburban areas.

“It’s not that there’s so many geese, it’s where the geese are being drawn to,” she said. “It’s the fact that they’re coming into the suburban and urban areas, then those numbers can come into conflict with people.”

Starting in March and extending through the spring, Indiana Wildlife Management starts receiving a bulk of phone calls asking for help dealing with geese problems.

The Martinsville-based company focuses on managing and removing wildlife of all kinds, from raccoons to rats. But coyotes and geese are becoming the most common complaints from clients.

Often, the birds have made their nests in gardens near doors or porches. When homeowners approach, the birds get defensive.

And once a goose habitat has been established, the birds will keep coming back year after year.

“If they had it last year, they’ll have it this year. These birds migrate, and it’s always worse. If they know they’ll have a problem, it’s something they want to start dealing with early,” Harter said.

When his company receives a call, Harter focuses on changing the environment around the geese, convincing the birds to move to another location.

Often, that means the use of special chemicals on the grass that leave a bitter aftertaste for the geese. If they associate that particular area with the bad taste, they won’t come back, Harter said.

“We try to change the environment that the geese will be in so that they don’t want to be there. We change the layout that they’d rather not be there,” he said. “We can usually have the population move along, without interrupting the flock.”

As far as dealing with the problem themselves, homeowners can put out decoys, devices that make loud noises or tape-recorded loops of geese distress signals.

But often, that just prevents the geese temporarily, said Eric Lowe, owner of southside company Hoosier Wildlife Control.

“The fake decoys and Mylar balloons, none of that works. That type of harassment will not work. There is not a deterrent,” he said.

Much of the problems people experience with geese stem from where the birds have built nests. If nests have already been established, people can get a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to destroy the eggs, he said.

Coating the outside of the eggs with corn oil, shaking them to break the yolk, or poking holes in one end will ensure the eggs don’t hatch.

But homeowners should place the eggs in the nest, to make certain the goose continues to incubate the eggs until its too late to hatch another brood.

“It destroys the embryo in a way that it does not hatch. If the birds are nesting in a place where they’re not disturbing people, but there are too many geese, that’s the best way to handle it,” Lowe said.

The department of natural resources advises homeowners to pay attention to the “three H’s” if they notice a goose problem — habitat modification, harassment and hunting. That combination will typically help rid their yard of the birds, Winks said.

Particularly effective is changing the habitat around their property so that geese find it unwelcoming. Planting high grass or barrier plants between ponds and their homes will keep the birds out. Fencing can also be effective, Winks said.

“Geese like open areas where they can see predators. If you can put in obstacles that take that away, that usually works,” Winks said.

Canada Geese 101

Type of bird: Waterfowl

Height: 20 to 48 inches

Weight: 11 to 20 pounds

Wingspan: 4 to 6 feet

Range: All of the U.S., the lower portions of southern Canadian provinces, northern Mexico

Habitats: Wetlands, marshes, lakes, streams, rivers, coastal areas, and urban retention and detention basins

Foods: Grains, succulents, forbs, grasses, pond weeds and lawns in urban areas

— Information from the Indiana Department of Natural Resources

How to deal

Halt hand feeding

Hand feeding encourages the geese to stay in one place, and it also causes them to grow accustomed to human interaction. Not only is this dangerous to the geese, but it could result in more aggressive and harmful behavior by the geese towards humans.

Scare the geese

Use instruments such as screamers, blanks and alarms that make a loud noise to disturb grazing flocks of geese. Audiotapes that repeat goose distress calls also are used.

Create barriers

Allow grass to grow to a height of 30 inches for 20 to 30 feet out from the edges of ponds or lakes, since geese prefer nice short grass for grazing. Plant shrubs along pond edges. Post strings or snow fencing along a shoreline to discourage geese from entering the water.

Remove nesting materials

While geese are in the nest-building process, removing the nesting material such as dead grasses and reeds on a daily basis can discourage them from building on a particular site.

Destroy eggs

This requires a federal registration number, which can be obtained at epermits.fws.gov/eregr/gesi/aspx. Properly registered, several methods can be used in egg destruction. Oiling the eggs with corn oil disrupts the gas flow into and out of the egg and destroys the embryo. Shaking the eggs breaks the yolk and destroys the embryo. With either method, the eggs are placed back in the nest and the geese do not realize the embryo has been destroyed.

Regulated hunting

There is an early hunting season for Canada geese that typically runs from Sept. 1 to 15. Canada geese can also be hunted in compliance with state and federal regulations during regular waterfowl season in November and December. Specific dates for this season vary annually. A late hunt recently was completed from Feb. 1 to 15.

Call a professional

Wildlife management specialists can help with the above solutions. A list of DNR-approved companies is available at www.in.gov/dnr/fishwild/files/fw-Licensed_Nuisance_Wild_Animal_Control_Ops.pdf

— Information from the Indiana Department of Natural Resources

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