EAST CHICAGO — It's fitting a dog named River is keeping seagulls and Canada geese away from the water at Lake Michigan beaches managed by East Chicago.
River is just one of many trained border collies from Wild Goose Chase, a bird management company out of Chicago Ridge, Illinois, who along with their trainers patrol the beaches daily from May 1 through Aug. 31 to keep nuisance birds such as gulls and geese from loafing there.
The goal is to keep seagulls and Canada geese off the long, contiguous stretch of beach that includes Jeorse Park Beach and Buffington Harbor Beach. The birds are being chased because they are one source of E. coli that negatively affects water quality, said Sue Hagberg, president of Wild Goose Chase.
This marks the second full year Wild Goose Chase dogs are patrolling the beach in a program fully funded through a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency that is applied for and administered by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.
Hagberg said the city is just looking for ways to bring people out to the beach and swim in the lake.
"The beach has had a complete turnaround with the amount of money they've invested in it," she said. "Word is getting out it's a great place to spend time."
It's all about the dog's eye contact
Hagberg said it's not so much about the chase when it comes to bird management — it's the ability of a border collie to make eye contact to the birds, which is threatening. Border collies are herding breeds and motivated by work, Hagberg said. They use their eyes to move animals, whether sheep or goats or ducks.
"Birds have incredible eyesight," Hagberg said. "I can be walking down the beach with a golden retriever that is not as threatening as somebody staring and stalking at you in a crowd. That's what we're trying to mimic."
Hagberg said they generally walk the dog up and down the beach even if they only see a few of the targeted birds. Some birds are not pursued because they do want to increase the diversity of the waterfowl.
Hagberg said few pest control companies have the ability to help this way because most of what her business is about is observation.
"Why are the birds there?" she asked. "They're looking for food opportunities, a way to raise their young. You can't kill a lot of the birds because they're protected. We have to find a way to manage them and coexist."
Hagberg said seagulls are extremely resilient.
"You may not have one in your visual view and someone throws a potato chip in the air and you have 100," she said. "More people at the beach means there is generally more food at the beach, which means there is more attractants to the birds."
Keep beaches clean, don't feed the birds
Hagberg said if people want to visit the beach, one of the things they can do to help keep beaches clean is to not feed the birds.
"It's not healthy for them," she said.
Giving Canada geese bread, for instance, can cause a deformity in their wings and affect their ability to fly, Hagberg said.
Wild Goose Chase has about 30 dogs, some of who are rescue dogs that have been trained. The company has other divisions, too, including scent detection where dogs can sniff out bed bugs or oil or gas leaks.
Wild Goose Chase also is doing bird counts at Whiting's Whihala Beach where staff literally counts nuisance birds to see if there is a significant number of them. Hagberg said it's step one of the program to see if it "becomes a chase."
Natalie Adams, general manager of the East Chicago marina and lakefront, said the dog program has had an impact as the city works to reduce bacteria at lakefronts and beaches. She said the city is dedicated to keeping the beaches as clean as possible.
According to IDEM, the number of sample's exceeding the state's recreational water quality standards have decreased as compare to the same time in 2016.
Jeorse Park Beach, divided into two sections, is down 25 and 18 percent. Buffington Harbor has a 33 percent decrease. After the completion of the first year of the program, the 2016 beach season, IDEM said the beaches showed significant improvement with decreases at Jeorse Park of 43 and 50 percent and 25 percent at Buffington Harbor
IDEM said the 2016 exceedance rates for these beaches were the lowest recorded since the beach monitoring program administered by IDEM started in 2004. The results led IDEM to seek additional funding from the EPA to implement the program again this year.