Kiwi the Geese Herder This Dog’s for the Birds

Kiwi whimpers and quivers, straining against his leash. The 8-year-old Australian shepherd miniature convulsively twists, whines and glances up at his master, Renee Guild, with piercing icy blue eyes.

“Time to go to work?” his upturned face seems to plead. Guild crouches down, unclips the leash from his collar.

“Go get ‘em!” says Guild with a chuckle.

Kiwi, his white fur with black flecks covered by his “official” green Parks Department vest, zips off across a stretch of close-cut lawn at Vasona Lake County Park toward a gaggle of Canada geese. The birds scatter. Some manage a running start to fly a few dozen feet away. Kiwi circles back, his tongue lolling out one side of a wide-open grin.

“There he goes, that’s his job,” Guild says. “He knows he’s good at it, too.”

 

Avian Invasion

Canada geese are naturally migratory, wintering in the relatively temperate California climes before setting off in a V-formation back north in the spring. That’s been the way of the world for centuries. Until some flocks got a little too cozy.

Picnickers and other Vasona visitors, like those at countless other open spaces throughout the country, fed the waterfowl, who gobbled up bread, chips and other leftover picnic treats unnatural to their diet of mostly grass shoots and other plants.

Geese got fat, lazy and, in some cases, stopped migrating. When they stay year-round, they eat up the grass, cover the ground with droppings (sometimes to the chagrin of the same picnickers that fed them) and get boldly territorial, enough to harass park-goers, fearlessly honking and wing-flapping in protest.

That’s been the case at Vasona for years, where these so-called Canada geese are losing the right to their namesake. If they were people, federal immigration agents would no doubt have tracked them down, questioned them about overstaying their visitor visas and sent them packing for Canada. But Canada geese are protected by the nearly 100-year-old Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 between the U.S. and Great Britain on behalf of Canada, which prohibits pursuing, hunting, capturing, killing, or transporting any migratory bird.

“They’re Vasona geese, they’re no longer Canada geese,” jokes Don Rocha, head of natural resource programs for the 45,000 square acres of open space under purview of the Santa Clara County Parks and Recreation Department. “We’re just figuring out how to humanely make them uncomfortable enough to get moving again.”

Guild enlisted Kiwi as the first volunteer “goose lifter” in the park district’s somewhat bureaucratically dubbed “waterfowl management program.”

“I live nearby, so we walk here all the time anyway,” says Guild. “We come out here three or more times a week. Kiwi loves it because it’s his breed’s instinct to herd.”

 

According to Plan

The most effective way to shoo away geese is to sic a trained herding dog on them, according to a book on the subject, “Wild Neighbors.” Dogs force the birds to re-adapt to a habitat with predators present.

“Dogs handled properly put geese in flight and the geese leave an area entirely,” the book reads. “Handled improperly, they may only put the birds in the water, where, if not pursued, they quickly learn the dog is not a real threat.”

For the dog, this is a real job. One it’s bred to do, even.

“Dogs must never catch or harm geese,” the book continues, “and must be well-treated and kept safe on the job as the valued employees they are.”

Rocha loves Kiwi’s instinctive behavior. “The dog gets it,” he says. “Startle the birds, run right back. Don’t hurt them. Don’t touch them. Just chase.”

Normally, the cost for type of service can run up to $1,800. Luckily for Rocha, Kiwi’s fine with volunteering. Now, the park would like more dog owners to step up. Aggressive hunting-type dogs need not apply.

“It’s important the geese remain unharmed,” Rocha insists. “They’re not ours, they’re internationally protected animals, and this is partly their natural habitat. We just want them to be uncomfortable when they overstay their welcome.”

Kiwi’s not the only goose deterrent, he says.

Rocha invests some of the park budget to plant drought-tolerant shrubbery around the lake, which makes the geese uncomfortable because it blocks their “runway.” If they feel like they can’t get enough of a running start to fly, they move to a more open area, Rocha explains.

Another thing the geese hate: Overgrown grass.

“They love the young shoots,” says Rocha. “They eat them up so the grass doesn’t grow.”

Looking out at the park, it’s obvious which patches the geese favor – they’re brown, dead, grassless. This year, Rocha ordered the groundskeepers to let certain parts of the Vasona lawns grow tall enough to obscure the tasty fresh shoots. One less temptation for the geese.

“It’s just another way to make them a little on edge,” Rocha says. “But they’re stubborn, so we have to use a bunch of different techniques.”

 

A Matter of Time

How much effort it takes to get the Vasona waterfowl to regain their natural migratory instincts remains to be seen. But Rocha’s pleased with the results so far. He’s asking the park to recruit more Kiwis, dogs that can demonstrate self-control and respond to their handlers’ commands.

Posters emblazoned with two pictures of Kiwi have been taped up around the picnic areas to advertise the volunteer openings. They read, in part:

“Geese moving is using a herding dog directed at a flock (gaggle) of geese settled on a lawn and is signaled to chase them off and send them back into the lake or body of water, without harming or catching the geese. This is done repeatedly and at random times (focused during migration times to entice geese to not settle at Vasona Lake County Park) in affected areas until the geese learn that the safest place to stay is on the water or their protected island habitats or wilderness areas.”

 

The Picnic Guild

Guild has her own ulterior motive for offering up Kiwi’s time and talent, she says. It’s to improve the experience for visitors of Vasona, among the county’s few remaining natural riparian corridors. Guild owns a catering company specializing in outdoor dining called, appropriately, The Picnic Guild, which partners with local wineries to set up bistro-in-a-box-style picnics for visitors to the Santa Cruz mountains or, naturally, Vasona park.

“We use seasonal, organic and local ingredients, provide three-course menus with compostable carry-all packaging and we are very conscious of all aspects of the beautiful environment in which our customers will consume their picnics,” says Guild.

Geese, obviously, can be kind of a buzzkill for someone in the catered picnic business.

“When people bring our picnics to Vasona and the meadows are covered with goose poop, we don’t want them remembering how hard it was to find a ‘clean’ spot,” Guild says. “So Kiwi and I are working to make sure that people have nice clear meadows to sit in and enjoy the park, their picnics and watching the geese … in the lake.”

Time to go to work, Kiwi.

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