HAMILTON — “You’ve got to get into the head of a goose,” wildlife-control specialist Michael von Kaitz explains. He’s standing at the Hamilton Harbour Waterfront Trail, near Bayfront Park’s boat launch. It’s a bright, breezy morning, and a flock of geese is moving toward the shore — but it won’t be there for long.
Von Kaitz calls the Hamilton police communications line. No one picks up. He tries again and informs the person on the other end of the line that he’ll soon be using pyrotechnics. He then opens the trunk of his vehicle — a big silver Mercedes-Benz SUV with a light bar on the roof — and surveys his arsenal. “Pretty juicy,” he says, bringing out a starter-pistol-sized gun and a nine-millimetre handgun with a special five-round barrel made to hold firecrackers. He also shows off a shotgun that shoots firecrackers, noting with frustration that he can’t use it in Hamilton due to optics. Every so often, even though he warns police and bystanders, people mistake his activities for something threatening or illegal and call 911.
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Once he’s selected his tools, von Kaitz drives down the Waterfront trail to get closer to the geese. He stops on a dock and fires the smaller gun, sending a round screaming toward the birds. They fly a few metres away, then land again. Next, he launches a firecracker from the bigger gun. There’s an explosion with a loud bang. The geese move farther away this time.
Since 2011, von Kaitz’s company, the Wildlife Management Group, has been contracting its services to Hamilton to control this area’s goose population (Hamilton pays between $75,000 and $90,000 for pyrotechnic and trained-dog goose-control services at all its parks each year.) Using pyrotechnics, lasers, bird calls, and more, it scares geese away from the shoreline and encourages them to stay near their natural habitats on the other side of the bay or elsewhere in the city. Von Kaitz says it’s essential to understand the birds. Try the same trick too many times and the unfazed fowl “give you the feathered finger,” he says.
While often considered a national symbol, the Canada Goose was primarily a migratory visitor to southern Canada up until the late ’60s, an Environment Canada report on managing goose populations notes. Following restoration and reintroduction efforts in the ’70s, permanent goose populations boomed in urban areas and by farms, where the presence of safe bodies of water and carefully tended lawns (geese like their grass short), coupled with a lack of predators, have created an ideal environment for them. In southern Ontario, the report states, the temperate-breeding population of geese increased from about 2,000 in the early ’70s to about 500,000 in 2008. According to Environment Canada, this population growth has given rise to certain issues: Canada Geese are known to damage grass and plants and erode soil, they can become aggressive around humans when breeding, and their feces can contaminate water.
In Hamilton, it was high levels of E. coli bacteria linked to goose excrement in swimming areas that spurred the effort to control geese at the waterfront, says Brad Jones, Hamilton’s superintendent of parks: “You can imagine how much grass the geese graze on. With eating comes droppings, and there are droppings all throughout the park along the trails.” Von Kaitz puts it another way. Before he started working at the park, the trail was “a black slick of goose s**t,” he says, noting that a single goose can eat four pounds of turf and drop two pounds of poop each day. Jones says that 2019 was the first year since the program began in which there were no E. coli-related closures at Hamilton’s Pier 4 Park (where goose-control efforts also take place) — a measure, he says, of the program’s success. The city’s goal is to have swimming areas open for 80 per cent of the season. This year, Hamilton swimming areas were open 92 per cent of the time, or 67 of 73 days, Jones says.
Von Kaitz says that his team will often spend seven hours at Bayfront in a day, moving from place to place, counting the geese, and moving them back. Despite control efforts, he notes, birds are often drawn to the shore because people feed them. Shortly after von Kaitz says this, a boy across the bay starts tossing food into the water for nearby swans. As if on cue, two geese land in the water, making a beeline for the boy. According to Kaitz, a big part of his job is educating the public: He often tells children he sees feeding geese that it’s not good for them and asks them to stop. He tell adults the same thing, but sometimes they get “pretty pissy” with him, he says, adding that people at Bayfront have thrown rocks at him and told him and his team to leave the geese be. He says he trains new staff to politely tell people what they’re doing and direct them to call the city if they have concerns.
In addition to pyrotechnics, the Wildlife Management Group uses a dog to scare geese away from the shoreline. The operation also gets high tech: Von Kaitz shows off a $4,000 laser he calls “100 per cent effective, 75 per cent of the time.” When it’s dark or overcast, its beam can be used to irritate the geese and herd them away. The team also blares predatory bird calls from a speaker in the SUV. At Pier 4 Park, the city has planted a special type of grass that grows a fungus geese don’t like to eat, Jones notes. Another control method involves destroying the eggs of some nesting birds to prevent gosling births. “We don’t want to get rid of all the geese. We just want to maintain a healthy balance,” von Kaitz says, adding that, this fall, there are about 400 geese in the park — 100 more than usual, possibly because nest destruction was delayed due to COVID-19 restrictions.
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