Green buffers keep birds from fouling beaches

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A big stretch of white, sandy beaches is a picturesque scene for vacationers looking to swim, read or build sandcastles. But a clear Great Lakes shoreline can also attract pests — birds.

Landscaped beach in Door County, Wisc. Photo: Door County Soil & Water Conservation Department

“Birds want to be able to see any predators that might be around, so they tend to stay in more open areas and they land in more open areas,” said Amanda Surfus, a conservationist for the Door County Soil and Water Conservation Department in Wisconsin.

Last year the department began planting tall dune grasses and shrubs on county beaches to keep birds from moving freely between the shore and the park areas behind it.

All the bird traffic was making quite a mess, Surfus said.

“They don’t feel safe in taller vegetation because they can’t see their surroundings,” Surfus said.

Although birds are part of shoreline ecosystems, Greg Kleinheinz, associate dean and professor of microbiology at the University of Wisconsin-OshKosh, said huge flocks of birds aren’t natural on beaches.

Dunegrasses help keep birds away from the beach. Photo: Door County Soil & Water Conservation Department

Kleinheinz worked on a study for the International Joint Commission looking at the impacts birds have on water quality.

“There’s nothing wrong with birds, but we want them to be naturally present and not present in numbers that are above what you would normally expect to see,” Kleinheinz said. “It’s a balance of nature. Once you upset the balance, you get too many of them and that’s when you start having problems.”

Those problems come from the pathogens, or germs, in bird feces that can sicken beach visitors and wildlife.

“Whether the bird waste is on the sand or the water, the more birds you have the more waste you’re going to have on the beach,” Surfus said. “It could negatively affect the water quality of the beach area.”

Municipalities monitor for beach contamination, and if they find too much they post advisories telling swimmers to avoid the beach.

Surfus said the department re-landscaped beaches that are most often contaminated by birds and stormwater. Although the grasses have been good for cutting contamination, Surfus was surprised to get beachgoers’ approval.

“We weren’t sure how the community would react to grass being planted, but the city has been getting positive feedback,” Surfus said. “It’s a sense of not being at a city beach, but a more rural beach where there are a lot of dunegrasses and dunes.”

The landscaping also filters water that runs off the mainland, which makes it cleaner before getting to the lake.

8 thoughts on “Green buffers keep birds from fouling beaches

  1. Susan, you should be thankful you had all those Swallows out there eating thousands and thousands of bugs, including disease carrying mosquitoes and those annoying biting sand flies. Usually some sort of erosion problem will change the bank area and the swallows will move on to another area. Be thankful you have a source of natural bug control, or you could just coat yourself with a layer of chemicals to keep the bugs away.

  2. I should also add that this area is a highly dense residential area, not a natural area. It could definitely be defined as a nature vs. humans interaction. The birds were nesting in cut foredune next to people’s homes. I worried a lot that if people figured out what was going on they would unlawfully mess with the nests.

  3. I had a problem on my beach this past summer with Bank Swallows because of some foredunes that had been washed away, leaving steep banks the swallows love. It caused exceedances on the beach just in that area. The mamas deficated, and they also carried stuff out of the nests. In addition, more seagulls were attracted to the site to eat babys that may have fallen of the nest. After fledging, the problem magically went away. So, as much as I love birds, it was surprising how much even the little ones (hundreds of them) could cause a problem. Unfortunately, I have no scientific evidence to back up anything I have just said here. Wish I did. Anyone wish to study this next summer, let the Indiana Dept. of Env. Management know.

  4. Bob, I certainly suspected that was the case, but by omission they were maligning all species of birds. It is well known that Canada Geese favor feeding areas with shorter grass, and avoid wandering into taller grasses, so that’s why this situation seemed particularly geared towards them. But, if that is the case, the bigger question should be why are Canada Geese being attracted to a sand beach which normally provides no food for them? Are people feeding geese and gulls, as they often do? If so, perhaps curtailing that activity would be more appropriate and more effective. Or, perhaps, Canada Geese are being ATTRACTED to beaches due the landscaping which park managers sometimes install. The first photo in the article shows a wide swath of un-natural lawn next to a beach which is exactly the type of habitat which would entice hungry geese to visit, regardless of the few shrubs shown in the photo. In any case, where is the concern about the foraging and nesting shorebirds that need open sand beaches? Undisturbed beaches are such a rare commodity these days. That’s why many shorebirds have experienced serious population declines, and Piping Plovers are an endangered species.

  5. i wish the author of the article had explored further the question of to what extent, and in what ways, humans have upset “the balance of nature” (kleinheinz) that have resulted in birds that are “present in numbers above what you would normally expect to see” . . .
    in addition, presumably the great lakes had light-colored sandy beaches before humans “upset the balance”, so modifying the great lakes beaches to deprive all birds of that habitat seems both ecologically dangerous and ethically unjustified . . .

  6. It’s a little disquieting to hear a professional conservationist and a representative of the IJC referring to birds (all birds?) as the source of a problem that is 99% Canada Goose. Shore birds, already depleted by shoreline “improvements” are a valuable part of the beach
    going experience, their habitat needs to be protected. Gulls, in their normal density, enrich the beach goers experience and provide
    valuable sanitation services. There are ways to control geese without
    destroying coastal ecology.

  7. Harold, I believe they are referring to geese and seagulls in excessive numbers which can cause water quality problems and result in swimming advisories and beach closures.

  8. First of all, birds are not pests. Such a generalization is simply wrong. If anything should be stated about pests, it is that birds EAT pests (such as mosquitoes and a variety of other insect pests). Now there may be a few species which create problems due to particular circumstances. Is this article referring to Canada Geese? Any bird species in particular? There are a few hundred species of birds in the Great Lakes region: songbirds, waterfowl, raptors, etc. I would hate to live in a world without them. The most problematic species I ever see at the beach is homo sapiens.

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