October 1, 2013

Collies corral a monumental mess

By Arthur Hirsch
The Baltimore Sun

BALTIMORE — The human eye sees a black-and-white border collie, about 35 pounds, stepping slowly and silently across the lawn at Fort McHenry, its light-brown eyebrows lending its face a most personable expression.

The Canada goose eye apparently sees something very different: a predator, perhaps a fox or wolf.

Standing at Whetstone Point about 50 feet from the dog Thursday morning, more than 40 geese sense trouble, honk, begin ambling away. As the dog steps closer, the birds take wing and head for the safety of the water.

Boo the border collie, energetic employee of Geese Police of Maryland, has done his job. For now, at least, the Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine in South Baltimore is goose-free.

Boo will be back, though, and soon, as the yearly migration has just begun. He and his handler, Rich LaPorta, are in the first week of a yearlong $19,020 contract at Fort McHenry, as the historic site fights a continuing battle with Canada geese – both migratory and Maryland populations – or, more specifically, their droppings.

“We have, for years, dealt with their excrement,” said Paul Bitzel, a resources manager for the National Park Service assigned to Fort McHenry and the Hampton National Historic Site in Towson, Md. While visitor traffic is up for the War of 1812 bicentennial, with commemorative events to continue next year, Bitzel said “it’s a problem for us whether we have a large visitation due to the bicentennial or not.”

Bitzel said he appreciates the sight and sound of the geese as part of the scenery at the 42-acre grounds by the Patapsco River, but goose poop is a common complaint. Some visitors, not realizing it comes from birds, ask why the park is letting dogs run loose.

OTHER METHODS NOT PRACTICAL

Experts say one adult goose can drop a pound or two of waste a day. Considering the numbers – 51,000 resident Canada geese estimated in Maryland last spring, and 462,000 migratory birds in last January’s survey – the problem can mount.

Bitzel said park workers tried using a goose repellent made from a grape juice byproduct, but at $139 a gallon, it was too expensive, and also labor-intensive: it had to be applied with a backpack sprayer repeatedly, especially after rain.

Letting the grass grow high could work, as geese prefer the low grass – the better to keep an eye out for Boo-like menaces – but that wouldn’t fit the aesthetics of the park.

Years ago, through a park service colleague, Bitzel heard about border collies and their way with geese. They were being used successfully to shoo birds from waterfront parks in New York, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.

In 2010, LaPorta said, the company had a three-month tryout, then returned the next year for about half the year and for a full year in 2012.

The company recently won the annual contract bid again, making the National Park Service one of about 25 clients in Central Maryland between Cecil and Prince George’s counties, including golf courses, federal buildings, universities, cemeteries and the CNX Marine Terminals in South Baltimore.

LaPorta’s company is a division of Geese Police, founded in 1996 by David Marcks, a former Connecticut golf course groundskeeper, now with franchises in nine states.

Marcks, like Bitzel, tried several tactics to ward off geese: live swans, fake dead geese, fences around ponds, goose repellent.

Border collies, he found, proved the best way to drive off geese in a humane way without running afoul of the U.S. Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which protects the birds whether they migrate or not.

(Continued on page 2)

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