THE ATLANTIC FLYWAY is the path followed by many migrating shorebirds, including Canada geese. It passes through New York state. Canada geese once were close to extinction. As a result, they have been protected under federal and state laws to the point that their numbers have swelled and they are now often regarded as pests. This is especially so for the thousands of geese that have left the flyway to become permanent residents of communities along the way–communities that have large open spaces with tasty, well-groomed lawns, such as golf courses and athletic fields, and homes with open lakes and ponds.
In large numbers, Canada geese are not ideal neighbors. Their droppings accumulate, making careless walking and football practice a hazard. Lakes and ponds can be contaminated; for example, last summer, Lake Onota in Pittsfield was closed to swimming several times because of geese droppings.
So, what to do? It’s illegal to hunt or kill Canada geese without a state permit, and most of us wouldn’t choose to kill geese anyway to solve the problem.
Two Columbia County businesses offer a solution that’s becoming increasingly popular throughout the country: their highly trained border collies herd geese away.
Border collies are beautiful dogs. They’re mid-sized, usually have abundant black and white fur, have piercing and intelligent eyes and a strong work ethic. They were bred in England and Scotland to herd sheep, and herding “is in their DNA.”
Mary-Ann Fallon says of the dogs, “You could put a six-month old border collie that’s never seen a sheep in a field, and the dog would instinctively start to herd the sheep.”
Ms. Fallon of Goose Watch and Eric Johnson of Wild Goose Chase each provide their services to schools, municipalities, golf course operators and private landowners in Columbia County and surrounding areas. Ms. Fallon operates from Copake, where her husband, Mike, runs Copake Auctions; Mr. Johnson is based in New Lebanon.
Both Ms. Fallon and Mr. Johnson are originally from New Jersey and neither had experience with border collies until moving into the county. Ms. Fallon first saw border collies at work at trials in New Jersey and was so taken by the dogs that, when she moved to Copake, she decided to learn to train them. At first she worked with the state Department of Environmental Conservation, which uses border collies to herd geese in Orange County. Some years later, she started her own business.
Mr. Johnson started working with the breed at Hancock Shaker Village, where the dogs, more conventionally, herded cows, pigs and sheep After leaving Hancock nine years ago, Mr. Johnson started his business in New Lebanon, where he also has ducks (the dogs demonstrate herding with ducks at events) and raises agricultural products.
Mr. Johnson says border collies are “pure herders.” Unlike other working dogs, they do not “drive” animals. Their instinct is to circle from a discrete distance and to move low to the ground to keep the geese from bolting. They don’t harm the geese but instead direct them with the border collie “eye”–an intense look distinctive to the breed and unsettling not just for geese and sheep but even for many humans.
At the start of a job, according to Ms. Fallon, she and the dogs will go to the area they want to rid of geese several times a day for one to two weeks to learn the pattern of the geese. After a few weeks of the dogs chasing the geese, the geese will become wary of the site and eventually they will move off to another location.
Ms. Fallon is called back sometimes for maintenance work, especially before special occasions. Recently, the day before a large party, she and the dogs went to a landowner’s estate to clear the lawns and pond. For pond work, Ms. Fallon takes her kayak and she herds from the water while the dogs keep the geese from landing on the shore, although sometimes a dog goes along for a kayak ride.
The cost of a single visit ranges from $50-$100, though many corporate jobs are done on a fixed fee basis. After the geese have been “hazed” off, all that’s required is an occasional visit if they reappear.
Geese herding does have some critics, who think it’s inhumane to “harass” geese to move. But, as a study by a Rockland County task force found about a decade ago, hazing is a non-lethal solution that is far more effective than using the noisemakers, fake coyote heads and other paraphernalia that have been tried. Indeed, even the Humane Society of the United States acknowledges geese herding as an appropriate control strategy.
You can check out Ms. Fallon’s dogs on her website, www.goosewatchers.com, or Mr. Johnson’s at http://webdelta.com/wildgoosechase/about.html. Also, look for their demonstrations at the Columbia County Fair and other local events.