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When coyotes are good guys

3/5/2009

Remember the good old days when Canada geese were majestic wildlife? Growing up on an island in Lake Erie, every fall vees of honkers crossed the eastern horizon at sunrise as I sat in a duck blind. They were coming from Jack Miner's refuge along the Canadian shore of the Detroit River, heading out to feed in some distant field or patch of aquatic vegetation, only to return again in the evening, as long as the snow and ice did not cover everything.

In the 1950's and 1960's I never shot a Canada goose in Southeastern Michigan. For that matter, never even had a bird come close enough for a shot.

That was the "good old days" when Canada geese migrated. Today most of the Canada geese in the US are non-migratory, and their numbers are exploding — tripling in the last 30 years — which has turned a majestic species into a flying rat, befouling golf courses, parks, and sports fields.

Like so many places across the US, Canada geese have lost their aura and become pests like pigeons, starlings, and sea gulls, except that Canada geese are bigger — and that means as much as a pound a day of goose poop per bird, as well as a lot of grass gobbled up on golf courses, malls, lawns, etc., as well as farmers' fields.
Then there are goose-airplane meetings, such as the January 15, 2009, encounter between a flock of Canada geese and US Airways Flight 1549 where honkers were sucked into both engines and roasted, resulting in a total power loss after takeoff from New York LaGuardia Airport on, forcing the pilot to ditch in the Hudson River.

The habituated, non-migratory goose problem has been obvious to me daily as I pass by the local high school in Mill Valley, Calif., and watch 50 to 100 Canada geese blissfully grazing on the grass in the athletic fields.

"It got so bad that a kid would make a dive for a fly ball and come up covered in goose poop," says Mike Wills, the girl's baseball coach at Mill Valley's Tamalpais High School.

The football field was an especially attractive place for the feeding geese, which would wing in every day. The honkers got so acclimated to people that you could approach them as close as 15 feet before they would fly, and then they would only glide a few feet away, unless you purposefully gave chase or tried to hit one with a football. The longer they stayed, the more brazen they got. Chasing them out of football, baseball and soccer practice, even during games, became more and more difficult. And the goose poop accumulated and the smell got worse and worse.

Finally, it got so bad that the high school resurfaced the football field with Astroturf. That sent the big birds to the edges of the field, where real grass was still to be found. It made them observers, but still you had to walk through real grass and goose poop to get to the field.

Recently, the geese vanished, not just from the football field, but all the other athletic fields. No, they did not lay down more Astroturf — the cost was too prohibitive. I wondered if they had hired dogs to chase the birds away.

One day, while driving past, I noticed something in the field that looked like a coyote. Living adjacent to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, we have coyotes that have become habituated to people in this area, and lost nearly all their fear. Last year there was one who in broad daylight would sit in the shade of a big eucalyptus tree beside Highway 1 and watch the cars go by, waiting for someone to toss garbage out the window.

On the way back from the post office, I saw that the coyote in the athletic field at Tam High was still in the field, but the same place. I stopped and checked it out. Then it became clear that this was not a real coyote, but an imitation one.

That's when Coach Wills showed up and introduced me to the "coyote," which is made of lightweight, flexible rubber and mounted on a stake driven into the ground. Its posture is crouching, as if it is about to attack. And its face is fixed with a menacing growling expression.

"When the wind blows," Wills said, "the coyote moves and wobbles like it's alive. We move them around the fields almost every day. And since we've had two of them out the geese are nowhere to be seen."

There have been only two problems with the faux coyote, he added. One is that some people driving by have called the police and the humane society to report a coyote on the high school sports fields. The other is that the face on the rubber coyote is so evil-looking, some of the girls on the baseball team don't want to go near it, Willa said with a chuckle.

The faux 3-D coyote is made by Bird-X. They run about $59.00 each. And doing a little online research, I found that some other parts of the country including Dayton, Ohio, have had similar good results with rubber coyotes scaring away geese.
This seems a lot easier and cheaper than some of the elaborate and expensive systems of noise-makers, goose-chasing dogs, chemical repellents, egg nappers, goose snipers and trapping birds that other communities have been using, with limited success. If enough people would use faux coyotes, maybe it would scare the honkers back into the wilds where they belong, and hunters could take over goose management.

So far, the 3-D rubber coyotes are a big success out here. (Fingers crossed. Two months and counting.) The only worry is that whether eventually they will attract real coyotes.

James Swan — who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" — is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click to purchase a copy. To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.

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