One freezing cold winter day in 1959, my parents packed us children and a picnic lunch and drove nearly four hours to Gaddy’s Goose Pond in North Carolina. Mr. Lockhart Gaddy had first attracted migrating Canada geese to his pond for hunting, but in the 1930s he turned his property into a refuge for these traveling birds. We made the pilgrimage to see 15,000 geese, birds we had never seen before. At that time, there were nearly 200,000 migrating geese in North Carolina and 10,000 year-round residents; those figures have now flipped.
South Carolina ponds and lakes have also experienced explosive increases in resident Canada geese populations – birds that never leave the urban, suburban, and rural water sources they so enjoy. Sadly, the public’s ability to enjoy these outdoor sites declines as goose numbers rise. A mature goose produces nearly 2 pounds of fecal material a day, and that semi-solid excrement is much higher in bacteria than even human waste. Former swimming areas have been closed because of contamination and our ability to enjoy golfing, picnicking, or outdoor games is ruined by piles of this unpleasant and unhealthy manure.
Canada geese graze turf grass to levels well below the recommended mowing heights, leaving areas prone to erosion. When rains come, there is not enough vegetation to stop the movement of fecal matter and soil particles, both of which end up in the nearby pond or lake. In some cases, the nutrient load of that material is excessive, resulting in algal blooms followed by plummeting dissolved oxygen levels. In addition to the infamous Gardia, which results in “beaver fever,” other goose fecal bacteria are the causal agents of such bird diseases as duck plague and avian cholera.
Our penchant for large, maintained mowed areas surrounding bodies of water has created much of our current problem. Geese want to see what’s between the safety of their water source and the grasses or plants upon which they feed. Vegetative buffers, with plants 2 feet high extending 10 feet back from the water’s edge, make geese very unhappy. Although they have no fear of humans, they do fear the unknown, and are loathe to walk through taller plant growth. As an added benefit, when heavy rains come, the roots of those plants help keep the shoreline intact, and as stormwater runoff flows off mowed, grazed, or planted areas, dissolved nutrients and soil particles are captured, allowing any pollutants to seep into the soil with its cleaning flora of microorganisms.
Different bodies of water require different “shorescaping” designs. If you want to fish, you won’t want a zillion trees planted near the water. Some people simply let whatever is present grow up and get mowed once or twice a year while others choose to establish native plants as a buffer. Stormwater basins have their own set of requirements, including keeping conduits open and free flowing.
Clemson’s Carolina Clear Program has factsheets that discuss Canada geese management options and list the regulations that must be followed. Their water resources team has a super publication, “Shorescaping Freshwater Shorelines,” which suggests native plants for each zone you encounter as you move down toward the water’s edge and actually into the water itself.
For ways to help protect our drinking water, recreational water bodies, and minimize water use, please look for those and other factsheets at www.clemson.edu/carolinaclear. My kids grew up throwing off their clothes and jumping into any water source we encountered; let’s all work together so that skinny dipping can once again become a safe way to enjoy (remote) places in the outdoors.
Amanda McNulty is an associate extension agent for the Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service and the host of “Making It Grow!” broadcast weekly on ETV television stations. Website: www.clemson.edu/extension/hgic/ Check out her blog at the Making it Grow! page at www.scetv.org