Fly away, geese - Calvin is on the job

Fred McCormick
Black Mountain News

Geese have long been a problem for Black Mountain. Whether they've set up shop on the golf course or around Lake Tomahawk, it’s proven nearly impossible to keep the waterfowl from leaving droppings everywhere.

Keeping the Canada geese from these popular attractions is now the responsibility of the town’s newest hire, trained specifically for the job. He’s also a good boy.

Calvin, a border collie, is responsible for managing the goose population around Lake Tomahawk and the Black Mountain Golf Course.

Calvin is a one-year-old border collie. The breed, which has been around since the early 20th century, is known for herding livestock, predominately sheep. The intelligent canines have also proven adept at managing geese, according to Rebecca Gibson.

Black Mountain purchased Calvin from Gibson’s Charlotte-based company, Fly Away Geese, which began training border collies to manage nuisance goose populations in 1997. North Carolina has around 200,000 resident Canada geese and an additional 15,000 of the migratory version, according to Gibson. Their droppings pose a problem for urban areas, Gibson said.

“To understand the problem, you have to understand how it happened,” she said. “In the early 1900s, the Canada goose population ate (only) salt marsh grass and spent summers in Canada and winters down south. By down south, I mean only places where salt marsh grass is prevalent.”

Canada geese, which gather in large numbers at Lake Tomahawk and the Black Mountain Golf Course, carry diseases that can be transmitted to humans and other animals through feces.

The birds were hunted to the point of near extinction. Coming under the protection of the federal government through the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, the number of geese rose rapidly once they figured out that, during winter, they could live anywhere water doesn't freeze, Gibson said. 

“They started to eat other things - wheat, corn, oats, those types of things,” she said. “Then they evolved into a species that eats any type of grass that they can pull up from the roots.”

That is why the birds are attracted to areas like Black Mountain’s golf course and lake. And though they might be fun to watch, that's not necessarily a good thing.

The birds can be a nuisance, especially during nesting season when they become more aggressive. More importantly, their feces carry chlamydiosis, e-coli, listeria, pasteurella multocida and salmonella, all of which can be transferred to humans and other animals.

"A goose eats four to five square feet of grass each day," Gibson said. "They go to the bathroom four times an hour. You put 25 geese on the greens for an hour, and they'll eat 100 pounds of food in a day."

Calvin keeps a watchful eye on Lake Tomahawk as he lays quietly in the grass. The border collie is the town's most recent attempt to address its Canada goose problem.

Too many of the animals can foul water, as well. For years, Black Mountain has tried, unsuccessfully, to fix its goose problem, town manager Matt Settlemyer said.

“We’ve been trying to solve it through scare tactics,” he said. “We started with dog silhouettes, which used to be on the golf course and around the lake. Then we used wolf and coyote urine and sprayed it in places to give the geese the impression that predators were nearby.”

More recently, the town purchased a drone to keep the geese away. “All of those things worked temporarily,” Settlemyer said. But only temporarily, because geese are smart, said Gibson, who has been studying their habits for more than two decades.

"They pick up on patterns really quickly," she said. "At first, they'll be scared off by Calvin. And they'll come back and try to find places he won't be."

It will be the Calvin's responsibility - and that of his volunteer handler, Bridget Settlemyer - to show the geese "he could be anywhere at any time," Gibson said. 

The geese will try to avoid Calvin by landing in the water, but the dog won't be deterred. He'll jump right in to go after them.  Unlike a predator, Calvin isn't interested in harming them. He's simply doing what border collies have been bred to do- scare away threats.

"The Humane Society recommends this method for that reason," Gibson said. "It's harmless to the geese and gets them to go elsewhere. It's also great work for the dogs."

Calvin isn't the town's only four-legged employee. The police department has its K-9 unit, Briscoe.

Calvin is only one tactic the town is using to solve its goose problem, according to Matt Settlemyer. With a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the town is spraying eggs in existing nests with vegetable oil, which will prevent them from hatching.

"The geese still think they'll hatch, so they won't lay additional eggs," he said. "If the eggs were destroyed, the geese would simply lay more."

Another aspect of the town's plan involves public education, Settlemyer said. "We have signs up at the lake that say not to feed them," he said. "But people will still toss out corn or bread. That not only encourages them to come to the lake, but it's bad for the geese as well."

The goal, he said, is to address the situation in the most humane way possible.  

"We want to do this in a way that takes into consideration the health and safety of the wildlife population on these properties too," he said. "That's why we're taking a more comprehensive approach."