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LOOKING AT THE MIRROR: The trouble with Canada geese

Here is a mess left by resident Canada geese on a Mirror Lake swim dock. (Photo provided)

It’s getting close to that time of year when, traditionally, we would hear honking and peer into the sky, anticipating a glimpse of the Canada geese migrating from northern Canada to points south. It used to be a sure sign that summer days were behind us. But now, when we see and hear the geese in the fall, they might be heading in any direction, and we’re just as likely to see them in the months ahead as this month because these are not the same Canada geese we sentimentally used to refer to as the first sign of winter.

These are a giant subspecies of Canada geese, sometimes referred to as “urban geese” or “resident geese,” and they don’t migrate. These super-sized geese, on average, weigh 12.5 pounds, four times the size of their smaller cousins, but they sometimes weigh as much as 20 pounds. In the 1960s, they were believed to be endangered and consequently they became federally protected.

They have settled in temperate climates and as long as they can find food, they will remain. If they don’t migrate, their offspring don’t learn to migrate, and so their flock just grows bigger each year. Most giant Canada geese live for 10 to 25 years and lay five or six eggs each year. A single female may produce more than 50 geese in her lifetime, and according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, “… three pairs of adult geese can multiply to nearly 50 birds in five years and to over 300 in just 10 years.” There are now an estimated four million in North America. They are found in all 50 states and have become a major nuisance in many communities.

The village of Lake Placid is no exception, and Mirror Lake is an ideal location. Why? Because the giant Canada geese prefer open green spaces and landscaped shorelines that make entering and exiting the water easier for their oversized bodies. They also prefer fertilized lawns for grazing and fewer trees because spotting and evading predators is less challenging. In a busy, tourist town, there are also welcome hand-outs from well-meaning folks, but feeding geese human food or even commercial poultry feed is harmful to them, potentially causing thin egg shells that crack or a permanent wing deformity that leaves them flightless.

And here’s the problem the resident Canada goose poses for Mirror Lake today: each goose poops around every 20 minutes, totaling up to two pounds a day. Every time it rains, their waste washes into the lake. This inundation of bacteria deprives aquatic plants of oxygen, makes algae blooms more likely, and puts people at increased risk of severe illness from E. coli. All of this is going on daily at our public beach and boat launch. Not only is it disgusting to have to tiptoe around piles of feces to launch your boat, people are sitting in the grass and allowing children to play in the sand and swim from this area. The geese have also been enjoying use of our public swim docks, leaving the evidence behind. It is a serious health risk that we need to address. The question is how?

The state Department of Environmental Conservation says a combination of approaches is needed to deter this subspecies of Canada geese. The easiest and most humane deterrent is to not create habitats that attract them in the first place. That means letting our lawns be more natural and, more importantly, planting or allowing at least a 24-inch-tall natural, buffer zone of vegetation to grow along the waterfront. Ideally, that zone would be 20 to 30 feet wide, but even 6 feet can be effective, and the local land use code for North Elba requires a 10-foot buffer zone.

Decoys, both canine and swan, have been utilized, but these are only effective temporarily. The geese wise up when they aren’t chased or attacked. Sometimes geese are collected during their molt (when they are shedding their feathers and cannot fly); this is fittingly called a goose roundup. Even after being moved 500 miles away, though geese have been known to return to their breeding grounds. Presently in New York state, a roundup can only be carried out by individuals licensed by the state, and the geese must be euthanized, a solution that would be objectionable to many.

A costly, but effective, means of control is the use of trained border collies. Their intense gaze and the fact that they will chase the geese into the water and continue swimming after them makes geese want to leave the area, but these dogs are trained not to attack and may have to be brought back — with their trainer — more than once. Untrained dogs that are allowed to attack geese are not a legal alternative, and their owners are held responsible.

Oiling of eggs has been done on Lake Placid lake and requires no special permit but does require annual online registration with, and reporting to, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Eggs coated with 100% corn oil will not hatch, and the mother, being no wiser, will continue to incubate the eggs, not mating again that season. If the eggs were broken or stolen, she would.

Managers of beaches or of drinking water supplies do not need federal permits for “lethal removal” of resident geese between April 1 and Aug. 31, but they do need written authorization from the local DEC.

One lakeshore resident on Lake Placid Lake is using a motion-activated sprinkler to deter the geese. An innovative solution being employed by another shore owner is a bright green laser that shines sporadically on his lawn. Coincidentally, the USGA website reports success from a solar-powered laser that emits a 360-degree beam of green light every seven minutes. The light is attached to a floating donut anchored by a cable in the middle of a water feature on a golf course. They claim the light is rarely visible in the daytime, and once installed, the geese departed. Maybe some scaled-down version of this could be set up at the public beach boat launch and swim docks on Mirror Lake?

It is our hope that Mirror Lake property owners will be motivated to create shoreline buffers that will diminish erosion while discouraging the resident Canada goose population from settling here permanently. Additionally, it would be helpful if all who enjoy the lake were on the lookout for nests so that oiling of eggs can be done in early spring. If you see nests, please contact the Mirror Lake Watershed Association with locations.

To learn more about the volunteer efforts of the Mirror Lake Watershed Association to protect Mirror Lake, go to mirrorlake.net or join us for our monthly meetings at 5 p.m. the second Monday of each month on the second floor of the public beach house at Mirror Lake on Parkside Drive.

(Sandy Edgerton Bissell is a Mirror Lake Watershed Association board member in Lake Placid.)