In the fall of 1982, wildlife biologist Philip Whitford parked his car on the side of Wisconsin's Route 49. The road traversed Horicon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge, and in the surrounding wetland, hundreds of thousands of Canada Geese extended as far the eye could see. Only their pleasantly soft honks and grunts filled the air as flocks circled down from the sky to settle in for the night.
But not for long. Whitford was there to conduct an experiment: He placed a speaker on the roof of his car, hooked up a tape deck (it was 1982, after all), pressed play—and the marsh exploded. A loud high-pitched honking shrieked from the speaker, quickly followed by cacophony as honking and flapping geese fled the scene. "Every goose in the 150-meter area was up in the air," Whitford recalls. In other words, the experiment was a success.
What had thrown the geese into panic was an amplified recording of a Canada Goose alarm call. This recording was a rare thing: it was the only call of its kind in Whitford’s collection of more than 3,500 goose vocalizations, which he created by following a gaggle around the Milwaukee County Zoo for three years as a PhD student. And, as his experiment proved, the alarm call worked. But at the time, Whitford couldn't think of any further use for it. Who would want to scare away beautiful, majestic Canada Geese? In 1982, their population was in recovery after decades of being hunted for food and feathers. Fewer than 500,000 resident Canada Geese lived in North America, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Yeah, that was 1982. Not many people are talking about the “majestic Canada Goose” these days. Populations have ballooned: By 2012, 3.8 million of them lived here permanently (in addition to another 1.8 million migratory birds). To many, the ubiquitous geese have officially become a nuisance, ransacking farms and chomping up park and golf course grass, leaving vast seas of droppings behind them. "I still love to see them, hear them, and watch them fly,” says Whitford, touchingly. “Although I realize now that many people despise them.”
In fact, many people are so fed up with the geese that they’d like to just go away—fast. And so Whitford’s unique alarm call recording was given a whole new reason for being.
Of the Canada Goose’s 14 different calls, there are alert calls and warning calls, but only one true alarm call. Whitford, who's been a biology professor at Ohio's Capital University since 1993, may be the only person in the world who can tell the difference. As he explains: The shrill repeated honk of an alert call "makes [all the geese] in the group stop what they're doing, raise their heads and look around" before returning to their business. A warning call instructs the birds to group together just in case they have to flee from present danger. But an alarm call is serious business, used only when the goose is frightened by an unsuspected threat. "The alarm call has a deep evolutionary basis in the behavior of the animals," Whitford says. "It goes to the center of their brain and says: ‘Run, fool, run!’"
So, in 2001, Whitford approached Bird-X, a company that develops and sells humane pest control methods, to see if there was a market for his alarm call. A year later, they released the GooseBuster, a patented speaker system that plays a mix of alert, warning, and alarm calls to scare geese from an area. The GooseBuster is one of several audio bird repellents sold by Bird-X (the World Bank’s D.C. offices even uses one of hawk, falcon, and other predator calls to scare off smaller birds.)
The GooseBuster worked "pretty well" on its own, Whitford says, but a second experiment in Horicon Marsh in 2005 proved how the alarm call could be even better. As Whitford played alarm calls through the GooseBuster from the roof of his car, a refuge biologist shot off a cracker shell, a small explosive that creates a loud bang to scare off animals. The combination of the alarm call and the sound of a potential threat worked wonders: 180 geese cleared out of a sewage treatment pond in 5 minutes—and the next day, they had not returned.
A few years later, Whitford did a similar demonstration at the U.S. Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, and the 250 geese that had been living there for a decade took off within 20 seconds. A full 16 months later they still had not returned to campus.
While he's glad his system helps geese and people live peacefully, Whitford says he wishes people would stop hating on Canada Geese. It's our lifestyle that helps them thrive, anyway: Their primary food is short, tender grass that is high in protein, like that grown on golf courses, parks and lawns. They also love young shoots and leaves, like those grown in vast acreage on farmland. "You give them a paradise and then you wonder why they're there," he says.
Until the day comes when the birds get their due, Whitford will continue to help geese and people with his GooseBuster—even if he would prefer a different name for his invention. When Bird-X suggested it, "I could just see myself with the tanks on my back and the suits of the Ghostbusters," he says bashfully. "It's embarrassing, but I learned to adapt."