By Deanna Isaacs
If you’re a regular visitor to the Chicago Botanic Garden, you know it hasn’t always been such a sensory delight. Not too long ago, folks coming to smell the roses were picking their way through a minefield of goose poop while the staff looked on in dismay, their hands tied. Giant Canada geese, once nearly extinct and now protected by a gaggle of local, national, and international laws, had come back with a vengeance–an ecological victory, waddling amuck. And there was no place they liked so well as this manicured paradise conveniently situated along their flight path.
It was a problem that landed square on the shoulders of Tom Tiddens, head of the garden’s pest-management program. Tiddens–a guy with iris blue eyes and serious boots–is a New Age Terminator with a slow trigger finger. He’ll ambush a bunch of baby scales with a soap spray or deploy an army of ladybugs if he has to, but his favorite strategy is monitoring. He likes to let things clear up on their own.
The goose situation was bad, he recalls. “Two years ago, the number one complaint of visitors at the garden was the Canada geese,” he says. “And I mean to the level where our ground crew had to go out and use snow shovels to clear the paths. During the fall migration the geese would make such a mess that you couldn’t walk from our Gateway Center to the Education Building without stepping in it. People would have to kind of dance along. And goose poop can be–” his hands go up to measure a chunk of space the size of a child’s shoe.
The goose population fluctuates throughout the year. “In the past we were counting 2,000 to 3,000 in the fall,” Tiddens says. “Most of them would be passing through, but some, finding this a real nice setting, became permanent residents. What geese really like are two things: water and lawn. A highly maintained lawn is their favorite food. And we’ve got lots of that.”
Given the honkers’ status, the down-jacket and goose-dinner solution was out. Tiddens tried just about everything else: repellents, habitat modification, natural antipathy, physical barriers. On the theory that geese have a strong distaste for Concord grapes, the lawns were sprayed with something like essence of Mogen David. “Expensive, and it didn’t work,” he says. Shoreline grass was allowed to grow tall: “The geese trampled holes through it.” Two pairs of swans, anathema to any respectable goose, were blatantly ensconced in the lagoon: “They liked each other.” Shoreline posts and string didn’t do the job either, and Tiddens feared that a more complete barrier “would have a negative effect on our other migratory birds.” He stopped short of pyrotechnics and propane cannons, but in searching for ways to make the geese a little less comfortable, the garden finally went to the dogs.
Some golf courses were using them already. Tiddens, not much of a dog lover, visited a few and was impressed. “If you or I were to run after a flock of geese, they’d just move a little bit away from us,” he says. “But a dog will get down, give them this kind of look…” Whoosh. A year ago, the garden hired Migratory Bird Management, a La Grange firm that specializes in training dogs for wild-goose chases. Now MBM brings Nick the Border collie or one of his coworkers to romp through the garden a couple times a day, giving the geese the evil eye. “The Border collie is a natural herding dog,” Tiddens says. “It’s a legal activity. We’re just doing what they term ‘harassment.'”
There was hardly a goose in sight when I dropped by the garden this week. I could spot their calling cards in the grass (“We don’t want to eliminate them,” Tiddens says), but it was nothing to hiss about. Huge flocks of humans are a continuing nuisance, but they can be avoided by arriving early or late, and the garden–resplendent in spring bloom–has never looked more exquisite. Now if they could just do something about that incessant whine from the Edens…