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Ganging Up on Geese

They're waddling about the county's office parks, nesting near artificial ponds or on waterfront property. They weigh about 20 to 25 pounds, come in families and leave feathers lying about in early summer, and other, less pleasant things year round.

"They" are Canada geese. But despite their name, most of these Canada geese have never lived outside Fairfax County, much less in Canada. While their ancestors migrated through Fairfax on their way to the Chesapeake from Canada every year, these geese are born, bred and raise their goslings here in the county. They are similar to their migratory brethren in almost all ways except for their stay-at-home tendencies.

To geese, Fairfax County is a tropical paradise. The weather is relatively mild year-round, there are ample lakes and ponds near which to nest, plenty of open space on office parks and golf courses and almost no predators.

"Migrations are dangerous. You lose friends and relatives on migrations. Why would you want to migrate? Think of it from a goose perspective. This has got to be a nice lifestyle," said Stella Koch, the vice chair of the Environmental Quality Advisory Council, a citizen group.

ABOUT 30 YEARS AGO, when hunters, late winters in Canada and an abundance of predators were lowering the migrating goose population, several breeding programs tried to boost the number of geese available for hunting in the mid-Atlantic.

Birds that were bred here never learned how to migrate, said Cliff Fairweather, a naturalist at the Audubon Naturalist Society's Webb Sanctuary in Clifton. They stayed and, he said, "kept cranking out goslings."

No one knows for sure how many of their descendants reside in Fairfax County year-round but Koch said that number is probably in the thousands. They contribute through their fecal matter to pollution in Fairfax County surface waters.

Geese are the single greatest source of fecal coliform pollution in Accotink Creek. According to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards, 98 percent of the creek's pollution levels should be eliminated. They also gobble up plants such as wild rice before the sprouts have time to mature, which becomes a problem for their migratory cousins, said Earl Hodnett, Fairfax County's wildlife biologist.

"That wild rice was a refueling stop for migratory birds," he said. "They may stop here but they're not going to have a lot to eat."

In other words, the migratory birds cannot compete against the resident ones.

WHAT IS to be done? Killing the resident geese is not an option because they are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. But hunting would not be very realistic anyway because the birds tend to live in populated areas, said Koch.

"Do you really want people hunting in Reston?" she asked.

Hodnett said hunting would have "negligible impacts on resident birds."

So the county has explored other population management measures. These include planting more bushes around ponds to make them inhospitable to nesting geese, training border collies to shoo them away and “egg addling” or oiling (shaking goose eggs to blend their contents together or coating the eggs with vegetable oil to block the supply of oxygen).

But egg addling requires localities to get a federal permit under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. To localities, the geese are like pigeons, said Hodnett, who has been branding geese in Fairfax County for close to 30 years. But to the federal government, they're closer to bald eagles.

The county has enlisted the help of Geese Peace, a Falls Church-based nonprofit which helps communities nationwide deal with the problems of resident geese.

The goal for these communities, said David Feld, the president is Geese Peace, is "take their community off the list of places where Canada geese want to be."

"We help them along the path of solutions as opposed to controversy and division in the community," he added.

Those solutions center on forcing the geese to move to wildlife preserves where they won't bother anybody, he said. Border collies in boats or in life jackets would "bring the predators to the geese and deny them the water," he added.

"This is not rocket science," he said.

"YOU'D HAVE to have a hell of a lot of border collies to make a dent in the goose population," said Koch.

Still, the problem is not going to go away overnight, she added.

"We have rearranged the environment and now we have to manage it," she said. "Welcome to the real world of Mother Nature."

"There is no such thing as a straight forward easy wildlife problem," said Hodnett. "That's one of the joys of urban wildlife management."