Visitors to Columbia's Lakefront promenade have increasingly been confronted by panhandling resident Canada geese, who had stayed away for years, chased by Glenn and Bud, the town's two border collies. But two years after the last dog died, the birds seem to have forgotten they're not wanted.
As a reminder, town leaders are preparing to spend up to $43,200 a year to bring in rented dogs from Frederick County. The nonprofit Columbia Association wants to rid its main waterfront at Lake Kittamaqundi of the geese — and their droppings.
"Geese not being the sharpest tools in the shed, it took them about 11/2 years to figure out" that the dogs were gone, Rob Goldman, CA's chief operating officer, told the elected 10-member CA board at a recent meeting. But now that the flocks of resident birds know there's nothing to fear, they've been doing some strolling before the outdoor restaurant tables, egging for table scraps and leaving their calling cards on the sidewalk.
Though some visitors like to see the waterfowl when they walk along the water, many in the town believe the non-migratory geese are a nuisance. In addition to being annoying, the mess they leave at all three lakes and other ponds damages water quality and promotes the growth of algae.
The Columbia Association board has cleared the way to hire Frederick County-based Geese Police of Central Maryland's five border collies to resume a task once performed by Glenn and Bud, though no actual count of the current flock's size has been attempted.
Though it might be unpleasant for the birds who are being chased, the idea is to make them go away, not to harm them or even prevent their eggs from hatching, as other places do. Goldman said Columbia officials worry that would be seen as killing geese by town residents. "We're concerned with the community response," he said.
Howard County parks officials, like those in Reston, Va., have another way to control the goose population. At county-owned Centennial Lake, in Ellicott City, parks worker Phil Norman said goose eggs are coated with vegetable oil each spring, which smothers the embryos."We've been doing that for over a decade," he said, though it requires time to find the roughly 50 nests around the lake.
Columbia's goose nuisance is worsening, though, officials said, so the dogs are needed..
Cindy Ranneberger, who operates the franchise from her farm in Libertytown, said "It's going to take quite a bit of work" and repeated visits at odd times for the dogs to convince the big gray-black-and-white-necked birds that they are predators, without actually touching or harming a bird. The dogs are trained to lower their heads and give geese a hard stare, which frightens them into flying elsewhere, though Ranneberger said the geese are lazy and rarely go more than a couple of miles.
Larry Hindman, a waterfowl expert for Maryland's Department of Natural Resources, said the total number of resident geese in Maryland is about 45,000 to 50,000 based on a count in April. Each winter, a half-million migratory Canada geese bolster the overall population, coming to Maryland from their summer breeding grounds around Hudson Bay, he said.
Recently, the local birds have been operating with impunity.
The nonmigratory geese often go to the neatly trimmed grass at Columbia's Hobbit's Glen Golf Course, too, and they also hang out at Lake Elkhorn, where up to 50 goslings were born last spring. Worse, all of that waste — more than a pound per day per bird — eventually winds up in the water.
"It's a real problem for the habitat," said Ned Tillman, an environmentalist and chairman of the county's Environmental Sustainability Board, who also lives near Lake Elkhorn. "I know it's causing some of the problems with the algae. We all have to figure out how to put less nutrients into the lakes."
In suburban areas, resident geese like to feed on mowed grass along the lake shores and at golf courses and next to small storm water ponds because predators can't hide in the low grass, experts say.
The geese also have another ally.
"They have a human population that protects them," said Chic Rodehamel, for decades CA's chief of open space management. "If you come out of Clyde's [restaurant] at 10:30 p.m., they're waiting for you. They've adapted to artificial light."
Sunday strollers at Lake Kittamaqundi proved Rodehamel right.
"I love seeing them," said Pamela Steinhice, 37, of Elkridge, who had brought her daughter Chase, 21 months, to see the geese and ducks. "They're pretty," said Ashleigh Bridges, 28, of Reston, who was visiting with her family and daughter Lily, 3.
"Today, our entire plan was to see the ducks. We like geese and ducks," she said. "I don't think anyone notices the poop, except pessimists," she said.
Russ Swatek, who represents Long Reach Village on the board, had a question no one wanted to discuss at the board's October 14 meeting .
"Is it unreasonable to cull the flock?" he asked.
But it was Canada geese sucked into the jet engines of Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger's US Airways plane that forced him to bring the plane down in the freezing Hudson River in January 2009. Locally, a flock of geese collided with a double-decker Megabus traveling from White Marsh to New York City earlier this month, smashing its windshield.
In July, New York authorities in Prospect Park near the Hudson sparked a public furor when, without notice, they corralled 400 resident geese during molting season when they couldn't fly and hauled them away to be gassed. Elsewhere, hunters kill geese and give the meat to food programs for the poor.
Rodehamel said removing the birds was considered years ago, but past board members got intense "flak" from the public. "Board members did not have the stomach for that," he said. The current board didn't pursue it.
At both Lake Elkhorn and Lake Kittamaqundi, when the poop builds to intolerable levels, CA crews power spray the feces into the water, further aggravating the nutrient problem that has left Elkhorn in particular choked with algae and vines.
"Wildlife are a significant source of bacteria," said John McCoy, CA's new watershed manager whose job is to devise new ways of keeping nutrients and sediment runoff out of Lake Elkhorn. The dogs will chase the geese away, but often not too far. They may end up at Howard County's nearby Centennial Lake.
"We're not actually getting at the root of the problem," McCoy admitted.