Handling Fowl Birds

Editor’s Note: This column, LBWA (Leadership By Wandering Around), is based on the premise that, in order to find out what’s going on in the field, a parks and rec leader has to leave his or her desk and “wander around” the area of operations, talk to people, ask questions and kick around ideas with the individuals in the thick of delivering services to the public. So the author will bring up issues that may be common to many PRB readers and ask the leaders who are the readers to weigh in and share their knowledge and experiences.

There were a lot of things I didn’t know about the parks and rec business when I accepted the director’s post in 1997. As a newly-retired Marine officer I assumed that, as the city manager who hired me told me, he needed a leader to pull together a divergent group of talented people into a team.

Leadership and teamwork are concepts a Marine can understand, so I thought it would be a good use of my skill set. Had someone told me that I would one day be herding Canada geese into a makeshift corral like some urban cowboy, I would have laughed and walked away.

When Fowls Run Afoul

My first encounter with these fowls (a description aptly given and now I understand why) was in one of our city parks. I was out LBWA’ing one day in at our premiere All Children’s Playground, a rubberized-surface, state-of-the-art, fully-handicap accessible jewel in our crown. There were kids everywhere and I was reveling in the good feeling that comes with knowing you are providing such a great amenity for kids, when I saw something that shocked me.

The geese were there too, begging bread crumbs and crackers and whatever else people would throw to them. I watched as a little boy, about 3 or 4, toddled over to a group of geese who had just been abandoned by a woman who had run out of bread. The birds were not happy.

When they spotted the little boy, they assumed he had bread. He didn’t. These feathered beasts were a foot taller than the boy. They were bearing down on him and I could see they didn’t intend him any good. Instinct took over and I threw myself between the boy and the geese just before the lead honker took out his eyeball.

This was to be the first engagement of what would become a running battle between man and fowl. I began to get complaints from people about what my brother in Minnesota calls “goose grease,” or the excrement from these eating machines that can devour several pounds of grass a day and deposit an equal amount of doo-doo. I got phone calls from distraught mothers telling me about the geese attacking their kids.

Background Check

I began to research the geese because one must know one’s enemy to defeat him. I discovered that indeed these were not the graceful geese I had seen from afar in my bucolic Wisconsin home. These were homesteaders, vagrants, birds that had lost the instinct to migrate.

Or rather, they had lost their reason. We humans–especially in warmer climates–had unwittingly given them everything they needed to take up permanent residence. Wide open parks, golf courses or sports fields with short-mowed, tender grass or people with bread not only afforded them food and water, but made them feel safe from predators.

I discovered that this was a problem all over the country (and still is). The once nearly-extinct Canada goose had been so over-protected that it now was listed as a pest. When they stayed, they multiplied and each following generation had less and less of an instinct to leave.

Now I’ve got nothing personal against geese. It’s just that they are bad neighbors; in exchange for our protection they eat, doo-doo everywhere and chase our children. They left me no choice but to take action.

Regaining Control

First I started with low-intensity measures, such as signs that said, “Please don’t feed geese,” which were largely ignored by both people and geese. I would explain to people why we asked not to feed them, but it was part of the attraction for kids coming to the parks. I could see that was a losing battle.

We tried physically chasing geese from picnic areas so they would feel threatened there. They would just move away and wait for us to leave and the bread-bearing people to return. Then I went high-tech; got a device that emitted geese-in-distress sounds that theoretically would keep them away. In reality, they ignored it. Apparently they also lost their fear instinct.

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