Managing the Canada Geese Population in Parks

September 1, 2015, Department, by Del Williams

There are several techniques to help manage the growing Canada geese population in parks.Parks are vital for community health, whether for sports, picnics, play areas or relaxation. But flocks of previously migratory Canada geese, drawn in recent years by food, water and safety, have settled year-round in many parks, devouring turf, defecating abundantly and leaving some areas virtually unusable.

Hunting, draining of wetlands and over-harvestings of their eggs brought the population of Canada geese to near extinction in most parts of North America in the early 1900s. With the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, it became illegal to hunt waterfowl or other migratory birds, except during the hunting season or by federal permit. But, Canada geese are very adaptable, especially to urban and suburban habitats, and with the changing weather, increased development along their migratory route, and changing farming patterns, many Canada geese no longer migrate to traditional wintering grounds in the southern United States and Mexico. Home has become the parks, golf courses and suburban sub-developments across much of North America. The population explosion of these beautiful heralds of spring and fall, whose V-formations continue to enthrall us, have, in places such as airports and parks, become a nuisance and a danger.

To put things in perspective, here are a few interesting facts about the damage Canada geese can inflict: A single Canada goose can eat up to 3 pounds of turf and defecate up to 2 pounds per day. According to National Geographic, just 50 geese can produce 2.5 tons of excrement in a year. Excessive Canada geese droppings in ponds and lakes can raise fecal coliform levels, diminishing water quality. The nitrogen content in the droppings also can contribute to excessive algae growth in ponds and lakes, causing local health authorities to close them. Not surprisingly, reducing the geese population in public areas of park districts, big and small, is a major issue. But, because Canada geese are a protected species, this requires finding unique ways of getting the geese to “move out” without killing or harming them.

“We’re trying to get the Canada geese to move to where there’s less conflict, away from people in high-use park areas, away from where there could be a water-quality issue,” says Cathy Breitenbach, Chicago Park District’s (CPD) director of Cultural and Natural Resources. CPD, with approximately 600 parks, 26 miles of lakefront, 16 historic lagoons and natural water features, and more than 8,300 acres of open space including 1,000 turf-based athletic fields, sought a humane way to move the nonmigratory geese out of conflict with the public in high-use park areas.

Preventing Geese Problems

Smith, Craven and Curtis, authors of “Managing Canada Geese in Urban Environments: A Technical Guide,” point out that identifying the characteristics of a site that make it attractive to geese (security, food, nesting sites, water) is key to successfully managing the problem. They go on to say that “Choosing techniques while ignoring the biological or behavioral aspects of goose activity will likely not solve the problem.”

Control techniques can range from imposing a year-round ban on feeding the geese using signs that explain why it is important not to feed them, to modifying the landscape, installing devices or using methods to scare them away, using repellents or chemicals, and/or capturing and relocating them. Depending on the method(s) chosen, costs will vary. Since Canada geese are a federally protected species, before choosing the method(s) to resolve the problem, Smith, Craven and Curtis recommend checking with local or state government to ensure you’re not violating any laws or regulations. 

CPD chose to use a goose repellent (in this case one that uses an environmentally safe compound called anthraquinone, formulated by Arkion Life Sciences, designed to both send the geese a visual warning and provide an innocuous, but unpleasant, consequence for eating treated turf. When sprayed on turf, the compound absorbs ultraviolet light, something the geese can see even though humans can’t. This sends a visual signal to the geese that something is wrong with their food. When geese sample treated turf it gives them a stomachache, a harmless but effective digestive irritation that reinforces the message that this isn’t the grass to eat, so they avoid treated turf in the future. 

For Chris Cassani, executive director of the Park and Forestry Department in Quincy, Massachusetts, and Nik Banda, deputy city manager and economic development director for Rochester, New York, using Arkion Life Sciences’ goose repellant also resulted in a cleaner park. According to Banda, hundreds of people a day come to the park, and people fish the pond all day long in the summer, often sitting or standing on the banks of the pond. “If they’re standing or sitting in goose feces, it’s not a good thing,” he says. At first the city’s parks department tried scaring the geese away with dogs and noisemakers but the geese returned as soon as the dogs left and several people thought the explosions sounded like gunshots, so the department stopped using them. 

In Quincy, Massachusetts, the city’s protected, fenced-in sports fields were especially attractive to Canada geese. The fields provide abundant food, while the fences offered protection and visual warning of attack for the geese. Cassani also opted to use the repellent. “We saw a flock feed for a little while then go away,” he says. “It was a night and day difference, particularly at one soccer field. We went from hundreds of geese down to essentially none in a short time.”

In addition to adding signage that explains the importance of not feeding the geese, other habitat modifications can include either planting a species of grass that the geese do not like, tall fescue for example, or, where possible replacing the lawn with unpalatable ground cover such as periwinkle, Japanese pachysandra and English ivy. A more involved and bit costlier method includes increasing the slope of the bank of the pond or lake to 64 degrees or steeper for a length of at least 2 meters. Scare tactics, such as using border collies, erecting silhouettes of predatory animals, using boats, planes or helicopters or other types of noisemaking devices, work only if used repeatedly and, in the case of cutout effigies, if moved regularly.

For more information about the techniques that are most effective for different situations, we recommend you consult the earlier mentioned, “Managing Canada Geese in Urban Environments: A Technical Guide,” by Smith, Craven and Curtis, or visit the Internet Center for Wildlife Damage Management. 

Parks & Recreation magazine Managing Editor Sonia Myrick contributed to this report.

Del Williams is a technical writer based in Torrance, California.