If it seems as if there are fewer geese pooping all over your favorite golf course, park or picnic spot these days, there’s probably a good reason – actually three.
Their names are Gracie, Bogey and Emma.
The three border collies can be found all across Erie County chasing away Canada geese.
“A lot of people think they’re out there to hunt the geese, but that’s not what we’re about,” said their owner, Craig Cygan. “We just try to keep the geese from making the property their home.”
Cygan, 53, of the Town of Boston, started the small business Borders on Patrol in 2007, using the dogs to help manage the geese population and the numerous complaints they leave behind. Given the proliferation of geese, the business has taken off.
New York has as many as 250,000 Canada geese, which is about three times too many, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
The migratory waterfowl’s yearly return from the South was once an iconic springtime symbol, but what’s happened is a portion now stay North year-round, thanks to an abundance of winter food and open water, explained Connie Adams, a wildlife biologist with the DEC.
“Canada geese have become incredibly adaptable,” Adams said. “They are a wild bird that have become very comfortable around people, and whenever that happens, not only do you end up with a higher population of the animal, but more human versus wildlife conflicts.”
As a result, Cygan now has nearly three dozen clients – municipalities, office parks, college campuses, golf courses – taking him and his dogs everywhere from Hamburg to Lancaster to Wheatfield twice a day five days a week to chase away geese.
‘The biggest nuisance is …’
“The biggest nuisance is their droppings,” Kevin Glowka said of his problems with geese at Fox Valley Club in Lancaster, “on the cart paths, on the fairways, near the greens. …”
“From a playable standpoint,” said Glowka, the golf course superintendent at Fox Valley, “it’s not good to have golfers walking through goose droppings when they come to play a round of golf.”
On a recent morning, Cygan and Gracie stopped at the Audubon Golf Course on Maple Road in Amherst, one of their new contracts.
“Gracie, that’ll do,” Cygan says, giving Gracie her cue to come.
Gracie rises up off the grass and walks beside Cygan: time to go to work.
As Cygan and Gracie walk Audubon, they reach Ellicott Creek, where the two dozen geese in the water sense something is amiss. The geese begin honking.
The idea isn’t to hurt the geese, Cygan explains, but to portray the dogs as predators and keep the geese from taking up residence.
Gracie crouches down and slowly, quietly skulks toward the water’s edge.
“Shhhhh!” Cygan says, giving Gracie the signal to run.
She sprints back and forth along the bank, eyes glued at the geese in the water.
The geese continue to honk.
Gracie stops and stands completely still, using her secret weapon: The Stare.
“Border collies have a stare, and that’s what intimidates the geese,” Cygan said. “They don’t like the attention. They realize this dog is serious about something. They’re not sure what it is – but they don’t want to find out.”
Cygan, a native of Cheektowaga, was a Secret Service agent for 23 years. He protected Presidents Ronald Regan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, as well as vice presidents Al Gore and Dick Cheney, before a stroke at age 46 ended Cygan’s career.
As Cygan searched for a new line of work, he read a couple stories that intrigued him: one was about a geese problem in the Town of Wheatfield; another was about using border collies to control the geese population.
When he returned to the Buffalo area in 2007, Cygan talked his wife, Kim, into getting a border collie, a breed known for their intelligence and herding prowess.
First came Gracie, 9. She’s black with white paws and is the consummate pro – work first, play later.
Next came Bogey, 6. White with a black patch around his left eye, Bogey’s the ham who loves attention and praise.
Emma, 3, is the rookie. She’s slowly coming back to work, after rupturing a tendon while jumping in shallow water to retrieve a tennis ball.
Cygan, whose day begins at 6 a.m. and ends after walking about 15 miles during the day, describes his job as more of a safety monitor – making sure Gracie, Bogey and Emma don’t get hurt or scare the geese into traffic.
The dogs, he acknowledged, are the real stars of this show.
The three are a bit like rival siblings, so to avoid problems – and injury – they only work together on big jobs. But they’ve been on many adventures.
Once, they were contracted to chase away deer from a homeowner’s property in East Aurora Last year, they were hired to scare away thousands of gulls that had settled on Transit Road in the Town of Lockport, preventing the construction of the Walmart Supercenter.
Now, Cygan said, the three are such a familiar sight, the geese fly away when they spot his tan Ford Escape pulling up to the job.
“Get in,” Cygan says.
At that command, Gracie jumps into Ellicott Creek and paddles furiously toward the geese. They fly away before she can get close to them.
Gracie swims back to shore, where she receives a well-done pat from Cygan. “Usually when the geese leave you’ve got to stick around for 10 minutes because they come back,” he said.
Not every one likes that Cygan is disrupting the geese, but it may be more appealing than the alternatives.
Several years ago, the DEC added hunting in early fall and late winter to help control the Canada geese population, while a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service allows people to disrupt the nests to prevent the eggs from developing.
‘Providing a unique service’
“Craig is providing a unique service in this area,” said Adams, the DEC biologist. “A lot of people prefer his service, because it’s non-lethal. He’s doing it in a way that is not distasteful to people who don’t want to harm wildlife.
Customers have been satisfied.
Fox Valley, where 300 to 400 geese have been known to take over the course, was Cygan’s first customer in 2007.
“I’ve been using him ever since, Glowka said. “I would say within two to three weeks, he’s got it under control, There’s a couple strays still holding out, but for the most part, they’re gone.”
At Erie Community College, the goose droppings covered the sidewalks at the North Campus in Amherst before Gracie, Bogey and Emma arrived.
“You couldn’t even walk on it,” said Tony Nesci, director of buildings and grounds. “We tried power washing it and we were out there everyday.”
Now, Nesci said, 98 percent of the geese have moved on.
“The geese will come every year, but by the time he hits it three, four or five times, they don’t go back,” Nesci said. “It works beautiful.”
At Audubon, Gracie spots a couple of geese who wandered back onto the golf course.
“Shhhhh!” Crygan tells here.
Gracie sprints down the fairway toward the geese. The two fly away.
“Gracie,” Cygan yells out to her, “that’ll do.”