In order to control the goose population at Commons Park, North Riverside has hired a dog service that uses border collies, like Octane (above), to prevent geese from getting too comfortable congregating there. (Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer)

If you’re a regular visitor to Commons Park in North Riverside, you’ve probably noticed that there are not so many Canada geese hanging about, quite a change from the large flocks of fall and spring.

And unless you’re a morning visitor, you probably also haven’t noticed a coffee-colored border collie being walked around the pond and in other areas of the park by a woman who sometimes will let it off the leash to chase off a goose that dares sail in for a bite to eat.

That’s Octane, a dog handled by Lorelei Cole, field operations manager for Wild Goose Chase, the company hired by the village of North Riverside to keep away geese, which are drawn to Commons Park not only by the pond but by people who eagerly hand feed them.

“Water fowl can’t break down those [foods], like if you’re giving them bread or crackers,” Cole said. “There’s proteins in those they can’t digest properly. It’s not in their natural diet. They normally feed on aquatic plants, insects and grasses.

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“Especially if they’re developing, when they’re young, they really can’t process that, and when they need those essential nutrients they’re not getting, they don’t develop the feathers that they need to survive.”

The handfeeding is not only bad for the birds, but there’s a rolling series of consequences to attracting so many geese. The food left by people attracts other wildlife, like coyotes, and the goose droppings attract rodents, like rats.

Overpopulation of geese – and the ones normally in North Riverside’s Commons Park are not migratory birds but year-round residents of the area – can lead to diseases being spread amongst that population and even to humans using those spaces for recreation.

“I know a lot of people like to connect with wildlife in the sense of being at a park, but unfortunately it’s pretty negative to the [geese] population.”

Despite signs urging people not to feed the geese and ducks (which are less of an issue because unlike geese, ducks aren’t usually aggressive) it continues to happen, so the geese keep coming and the village has to keep spending money to try to discourage them from returning.

More recently, village officials were imploring people not to feed ducks and geese, particularly in light of an apparently injured or sick goose that had taken up residence near the pond.

Ideally, the goose would find its way out of the park, but people feeding it has provided an incentive to stay.

“These guys don’t need [food],” Cole said. “They have plenty around here. They’re just becoming too dependent on people and don’t realize that they can just take care of themselves by eating natural things around them.”

The village hasn’t yet decided what to do with their injured/sick goose. For the first several days, Cole indicated she never saw the goose move, but last week as the dog approached the goose waddled into the park’s pond and swam off.

“Now that it actually moved it might be easier because we can actually move him off the property,” Cole said. “With injured ones, we tend to give them a bit of time before we try to figure out the plan of action. … Honestly, sometimes it’s better to let nature take its course.”

Cole and Octane – and on Aug. 12 dog handler trainee Emma Gavin and her collie Cowboy – make the trip to Commons Park seven days a week as part of Wild Goose Chase’s goose-mitigation program.

The schedule varies in terms of when they patrol the park, but it’s typically earlier in the day when there are fewer people and dogs.

“Wildlife doesn’t slow down so we have to be here every day,” Cole said.

It’s not cheap to control geese using trained dogs. The village pays about $7,000 per year for Wild Goose Chase’s services.

North Riverside Public Works Director Tim Kutt used a dog service many years ago to control geese in the park, but the village had not done so in many years. But, last year during the COVID-19 shutdown when parks spent a good deal of time empty the goose population exploded.

“We had a period there where we really didn’t have a lot of goose activity, for whatever reason,” Kutt said. “But this last year and a half it just got out of hand.”

At first Kutt attempted tackling it using plastic coyotes, moving them from place to place within the park, to scare off the geese. Within a short time, it was clear that wasn’t working.

“They picked up pretty quick there’s no harm there,” Kutt said of the geese. “To be honest, we had one [coyote] next to a food pile and within two weeks, the geese walked right up to it to feed.”

While the park is fairly goose-free right now, Cole said she expects traffic to pick up in the fall as the migratory Canada geese start traveling and looking for places to stop. But the giant Canada geese, a species that stays in one area year-round, will return to places like Commons Park, where they’ll also nest in spring, unless there’s a deterrent.

“These are resident geese, who are accustomed to people,” said Sue Hagberg, president of Wild Goose Chase, which is headquartered in Chicago Ridge. “Going into winter, they’ll be attracted to the Des Plaines River, because they need open water.”

In the mornings, the geese will fan out from the river into open areas to graze – like the forest preserve meadows and Riverside Golf Club fairways along the river’s banks. Just a short flight away, if coyotes are prowling those areas, is Commons Park with its pond and people toting food for them.

“It’s like jumping from one restaurant to the next,” Hagberg said.