Dogs clear Great Lakes beaches of polluting seagulls

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Collies and their handlers chase seagulls from Chicago beaches. Picture from Chicago Park District Special Collections.

Canines are taking their herding skills from sheep and cattle farms to sandy shorelines.

In a measure to improve water quality, beach officials and scientists in the Great Lakes region are recruiting dogs to chase seagulls.

Seagull waste contains bacteria that harms water quality. When the water is contaminated, park officials post swim advisories, warning swimmers to stay out of the water and sometimes close beaches.

A new EPA study may help prevent that. The study published in the Environmental Science & Technology journal reports that scientists used dogs to rid North Beach, in Racine Wis., of seagulls.

For eleven days researchers calculated the concentration of different bacteria on the Lake Michigan beach. They measured E.coli and Enterococcus concentrations to calculate fecal contamination. In addition, the study collected information on potentially pathogenic bacteria, which can cause infectious diseases.

Researchers then used two trained border collies with handlers to harass gulls while continuing to survey the water quality.

The dogs prompted the gull population to drop 98 percent, from nearly 670 birds to just fewer than 20.

Fewer gulls meant better water.  E.coli bacteria decreased nearly 30 percent with the removal of half the gulls.  Before the dogs started working, water samples tested positive for potentially infectious bacteria on seven out of eleven days. After the dogs chased the seagulls, researchers failed to find any contagious bacteria.

The study provides scientific evidence to back up what the Chicago Park District has speculated for years.

For several years three parks in Chicago have used trained dogs with handlers to combat seagull waste, said Cathy Breitenbach, the director of Lakefront Operations for the Chicago Park District.

Trained border collies patrol Chicago beaches. Photo from Chicago Park District Special Collections.

“(Dogs) chasing the birds away has really made the water quality improve,” she said. “They were depositing their waste on the beach and it was kind of staying there. It’s been the most successful source mitigation strategy that we’ve been able to find.”

Chicago beaches have used canine harassment since 2008, excluding 2009. The year before dogs started patrolling, Chicago’s 63rd Street Beach had about 44 days with water quality advisories out of about 100 swimming days, Breitenbach said.

“And the next year, when we stated the canine harassment work, there were about four. Whether or not you can attribute all to the dogs, I cannot really say, but it is really striking,” she said.

Although the evidence between gull removal and water quality was not scientifically quantified, the results were promising. The Park District has continued to use dogs through a project partially funded by EPA.

But the study and the program in Chicago are not an excuse for people to bring their dogs to the beach.

Susan Hagberg is the president of Wild Goose Chase Inc., the company that supplied the border collies and handlers, for both the study in Wisconsin and the patrols in Chicago.

Hagberg said they use border collies with handlers for a reason.

“They are herding dogs. We’re using border collies and their nature is to move something, drive something whether, it’s a sheep or anything else” she said. “So it’s actually the knowledge of the handler to be able to identify ‘we don’t want to move you know the terns,’ but we want to just direct the dogs for seagulls, ring-billed gull and herring gulls.”

She adds the harassment is not all about chasing after gulls.

“The border collie has a stare and stance like a wolf or a coyote when it’s stalking and it’s that ability, that visual contact between that group of birds that you want to disperse and the dog that, moves them,” Hagberg said.

Although she would like to extend the program, it is very labor intensive, some running seven days a week from dawn till dusk, Hagberg said.

“It’s a lot of work. It’s very, very difficult work cause you’re constantly moving around on a beach trying to prevent these birds from landing,” Hagberg said.

According to the study published in Environmental Science & Technology it’s also expensive. Using trained border collies for the North Beach study costs approximately $1,100 per day.

Education programs about feeding gulls, along with dog patrols, will have the greatest benefit Hagberg said

“The Great Lakes water is a resource that has to be maintained to it’s highest quality and with that in mind, you have to look at what can be done to keep it that way and we’re just one of the ways of dealing with a source of bacteria that we can control,” Hagberg said. “We can’t control necessarily what’s dumping into the lakes from outside sources and so on, but seagulls we can.”

8 thoughts on “Dogs clear Great Lakes beaches of polluting seagulls

  1. On Chicago beaches, one of the causes of contaminated water and the contaminated beaches themselves is the fact that the city doesn’t enforce its laws prohibiting dogs on the beach. I lived on Hollywood Beach (Osterman Beach) in Chicago for 25 years and, beginning around the late 90’s, all laws banning dogs from the beach ceased to be enforced. This was largely because the alderman in that neighborhood was an avid dog lovers. Hundreds of dogs ran that beach every day, with a good percentage of owners (albeit a minority) not picking up the waste.

    Now while adding an enormous amount of actual fecal waste to the beach, these dogs naturally chased away the birds while they were out there. And would you like to guess what the birds did? You got it: they’d fly away. Up, over the dogs, and right out to the water. Where they often tend to hang out anyway. They’re SEAgulls. They dig the water. They eat fish. The dogs leave, the birds return.

    We are talking about an enormous amount of daily waste–365 days a year. At least in the summer, when the beaches were open, the lifeguards would keep the dogs off the beach–from 9am to 9pm. Before and after that, dogs were everywhere, like always. Dog owners were even worse about picking up the waste in the winter, when they often let the dogs run out on the beach and didn’t follow.

    What of the statistics that say the beach closings have gone down since the use of the bird chasing collies? In that time, to limit the beach closures in the city, the city did what government usually does: instead of solving the problem, they lowered the standard. They simply changed the amount of bacteria that would close the beach. And now, instead of a green flag for the open beach and a red flag for closed, they added the yellow flag. “Swim at your own risk.” In years past, the yellow flag would have been red. Problem solved! The beaches now have many fewer closings!

    Bird feces do impact the bacteria levels on a beach. As do dog feces, human and other animal feces (from sewage and runoff), feces from the rats (who visit the beach at night to eat the dog feces)–any feces! But regardless of the claims, birds, with their gift of flight, do not leave the water! It’s where they live! Does anyone really believe that the birds leave? That they go inland? Take up eating corn?

    It’s quite insane. But good for the lovable collies. Everyone sure loves the dogs.

  2. You are worried about seagulls waste? What about human waste? Human waste has a much larger footprint than some seagulls

  3. Works well for geese populations too. I have a pair of Great Pyrenees who have been working an area for the last two years.

  4. It seems to me that a combo effort, dogs and careful handling of food on the beach would be an even better situation, but it’s more difficult to train people than to train dogs!

  5. Thanks for the link. I can at least see the abstract. And thanks for the scoop on the poop!

  6. Jeff: I have added a link to the study, however it cost money to read it. As for the dog poop, handlers made sure to clean up after the dogs

  7. What increase was there in dog poop? And it would be nice to include a link to the study published in the Environmental Science & Technology journal

  8. I see MANY more gulls at beaches where people congregate than at remote sand beaches. Perhaps we also need to be looking at why gulls hang out at public swimming beaches. Could it be the tasty litter and the handy unguarded “snacks?” If people continue to be careless with their food containers and bring food to beaches gulls will always be there. Gulls have learned that people mean food. Let’s take responsibility for our role in this problem.
    Also, if gulls aren’t on the beach where will they be hanging out instead? Public parks (many of which have ponds or have streams running through them)? They go where the food is. It may be that chasing them off beaches just makes them go somewhere else we don’t want them. One way or other, most gull poop will make its way into our waters, though if coming less directly contamination at beaches will be less concentrated.
    The solution remains: avoid doing things that attract them in the first place.

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