Canada Geese pose pollution problems year-round on beaches, golf courses and other recreational areas around Connecticut. / Contributed photo
Chris Santopietro, owner of Geese Relief LLC, with Chip, one of the company’s border collies, paused recently while on the job at an athletic field at Longshore Club Park. Pairs of the border collies and their handlers patrol Longshore and Compo Beach to disperse Canada Geese at least twice daily. / Photo by Gretchen Webster

By Gretchen Webster

WESTPORT — Wild birds delight birdwatchers and naturalists, but one species in particular — the Canada Goose — has become a messy, costly nuisance. 

For golfers, beachgoers and homeowners, and especially anyone managing public outdoor space, large flocks of Canada Geese — and their droppings — have become a big problem.

Westport will be paying $26,000 per year, or $500 weekly, for the firm Geese Relief LLC to keep Compo Beach and the golf course at Longshore Club Park as free from geese as possible, under a contract renewed July 26 by the Board of Selectwomen.

“We have problems year round,” Jennifer Fava, the Parks and Recreation Department director, told the selectwomen. The geese damage golf courses by eating the grass and their droppings are left behind everywhere, she said.

“It’s amazing how much they deposit back on our properties,” Fava said. “You’re trying to play golf, the balls are running through it; it’s on the ballfields where the kids are at camp.” 

A major concern is bacteria in the birds’ droppings. “It’s more of a health issue at the beach,” where children and others may come into direct contact with droppings, Fava said.

Call in the collies

The best way to remedy the problem, according to Fava, is to employ a goose control firm using border collies to chase the birds off sites where they congregate, and Geese Relief LLC of Greenwich is one of the few — perhaps the only — firm of its type in the area. 

“The goal is to try to scare the geese off,” said Parks Supt. Michael West, who called the flocks of geese a year-round problem.

“The dogs keep the geese uncomfortable enough so that they go away … I would say it is impressive the way it does keep them away,” he said. “I think that it’s well spent money.”

Geese Relief, a 26-year-old firm, counts the New York Botanical Gardens and Fordham University among its clients, according to Chris Santopietro, the owner of the company. It has about 200 clients in the New York, Westchester County and Fairfield County regions, he said.

The Geese Relief staff of 11 border collies and their human handlers can service about 20 properties each on a daily basis, he said, with a handler and dog scheduled to visit Compo Beach and Longshore Park twice a day, and more often if requested.

Border collies have a long history as working dogs, he said, herding sheep and cattle around the United Kingdom. His dogs are trained in much the same way as sheep-herding dogs with one exception. Collies who work to disperse geese also must be good swimmers because the birds often congregate in or near water, Santopietro said.

The collies are trained to scare geese away by running toward them, but don’t touch or harm the birds in any way. The dogs, and people, are prohibited from approaching Canada Geese nests, since the birds are protected under the federal Migratory Bird Act, he said.

On Wednesday, he demonstrated how the dogs work at a Longshore Park ballfield with his favorite border collie, Chip. The minute Chip jumped out of Santopietro’s truck, it was clear the dog knew his job.

The collie scanned the area, looking for geese, but was under complete control of his handler, responding to voice commands to explore in different direction or to return. 

Chip ran around the area, although no geese were to be found at the time at the field. Every few minutes, he returned to Santopietro’s side on a voice command.

Chip, one of the Geese Relief border collies, on patrol for geese recently at Longshore Club Park. / Photo by Gretchen Webster

“Border collies are really friendly,” Santopietro said, but the Geese Relief dogs are also working dogs. “Sometimes people want to ask them to “sit” or respond to other commands but that is not a command they are taught, he said. “We don’t teach them tricks.”

The dogs, trained by a breeder in North Carolina for about two years before coming to work at Geese Relief, enjoy their tasks, Santopietro said. In fact, when dogs are old and must be retired, they often still accompany a younger dog on jobs to keep them happy. “The young dog does all the work, while the older dog thinks he’s working, too.”

Canada Geese, an adaptable species

A reason the Canada Goose has become so prolific in the Northeast is because the species is adaptable to different environments, and also because in the early 20th Century it was thought the birds were becoming extinct, according to Earthplace naturalist Siobhan Prout, so they were protected and even bred.

“They are very adaptable so we are seeing a lot more of them. We’re coming more and more in contact with them,” she said. “At Sherwood Island — they have a huge population there.”

Some Canada Geese do migrate, but Connecticut “has resident populations of Canada Geese that remain in the state year-round,” Prout said. 

“They are grazers that thrive on large, open expanses of grass, so in an area like Fairfield County, they have their choice of grassy lawns, golf courses, beaches, fields … They do not actually have many natural predators in these manicured areas, further allowing their numbers to grow.”

Can the geese problem be solved?

Despite the best effort of the town, the Geese Relief company and its collies, the geese and their associated problems remain. 

John Polayes, a Westport resident and former head lifeguard at Compo Beach in the early 1970s, said he sees that geese remain a problem when he brings his grandchildren to the beach. 

At the meeting where the Geese Relief contract was approved, Polayes asked Fava and the selectwomen if anything more can be done. 

“There are more geese, but fewer swans,” he said. “There are geese droppings all over the place,” he said after the meeting. “But the goose is protected; no one can do anything.”

Even Santopietro, who makes a living dealing with the Canada Goose problem, said “there is no cure-all” for the problem.

“If your expectations are that you will never see a goose again, move away from the water,” he said. “We’re dealing with nature.”

And Faith Novella, also a naturalist at Earthplace, said it is actually human interference that has caused the goose problem in Connecticut and not the geese themselves.

“Canada geese, unlike most other native bird species, can thrive in human dominated and disturbed environments,” she said. “If we want to tackle their over-population longterm, we have to think about making the places [where] we recreate more hospitable to their natural, native predators, such as hawks, eagles, snakes and bobcats.”

“Instead of using taxpayer dollars to artificially scare the geese away for a short-term fix,” Novella added, “we should invest in habitat restoration to bring back the biodiversity needed to keep these geese populations in check for years to come.”

Freelance writer Gretchen Webster, a Fairfield County journalist and journalism teacher for many years, was editor of the Fairfield Minuteman newspaper for 10 years and teaches journalism at Southern Connecticut State University.