Border collies protect air base by chasing birds from wetlands
By Barbara Arntsen
Published in News on August 22, 2004 2:07 AM
Dragonflies flit over the tall grasses in the Goldsboro wetlands, their tiny wings sparkling in the morning sunlight.
You'll see plenty of the brightly covered insects darting through the blue flag irises, bulrushes, water lilies or any of the other 10 variety of plants at the wetlands.
But you won't see many birds flying through the reedy bushes or skimming over the waters of the wetlands.
That's because of Molly and Topsy, two unpaid but essential city employees.
These two border collies owned by the city patrol the 40-acre spread daily and chase away any ducks, geese or other large birds.
The city built the wetlands as part of an innovative way to treat effluent from the sewer plant. The wetlands reduce nitrogen in the river, but have a tendency to attract birds. A lot of birds in the area causes concern for officials at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.
Karen Brashear, the city's public utilities director, said that even though the wetlands are not in the base's flight path, the city didn't want to do anything that could pose a problem for the planes.
A bird caught in a jet engine can jam its operation. A crashed fighter plane such as an F-15E means a loss of $50 million or more.
"The base was a big consideration," she said. "But we also have really clean water here, and we don't want the birds dirtying it up. We test the water when it comes out of here."
Two bird experts from the base also work with her, letting her know the habits of ducks and geese.
"The geese will nest near the dike and the ducks nest in the vegetation," she said.
At least once a day, often twice, Ms. Brashear or another city employee from the sewer plant bring the dogs out to the wetlands.
"They have to have someone with them," Ms. Brashear explained. "Originally, we thought we could leave them there, but after research we learned that if we did, they would grow accustomed to the birds."
And, she adds, the birds would grow accustomed to the dogs.
So Topsy and Molly go out in 40-minute increments, jumping eagerly from the back seat of the car to romp through their large playground.
Ms. Brashear decided on border collies after researching different herding breeds on the Internet.
"They're the predominant breed used to get rid of nuisance birds at other places, like wetlands or golf courses," she said.
The two dogs and three puppies were given to the city in March 2003.
"Topsy was still nursing the puppies when we got her," Ms. Brashear said. "We found homes for the puppies by putting up fliers in veterinarian offices."
That left the city with 3-year-old Topsy, and her mother, 4-year-old Molly to handle the wetlands.
Ms. Brashear said that she and her assistant Edie Price "sort of trained the dogs."
"They basically knew what to do, we just had to help them along a little," she said.
The first thing was getting the dogs used to people and to a leash.
"They were very shy at first and they'd never had a leash on so they panicked when we first put one on them," she explained.
But soon the dogs learned that when they got the leash on them, they would go in the car.
"And when they get in the car, they know they're going to the wetlands, which they love," Ms. Brashear said.
To train the dogs, Ms. Brashear and Ms. Price showed the dogs what they wanted them to do.
"If we saw geese, we'd run after them, shooing them away," she said, laughing. "And we'd let the dogs run with us."
She said it only took a few times before the dogs got the idea and began chasing the birds away on their own.
Though the collies are not water dogs, like Labrador retrievers, they will splash through the water to chase away the birds.
"At first they acted like they had never seen water, but now they'll go in up to their neck," said Ms. Brashear.
Ms. Price said the dogs swam like she did, "they want their feet touching the ground."
After their morning romp, the dogs are returned to their large yard at the sewer plant.
"We feed them dog food with a high amount of protein because of all the running they do," Ms. Brashear said. "They run miles a day."
At certain times of the year, the dogs may make more than two daily trips around the wetland cells.
"We studied the migratory patterns of the birds, and we take them out a lot during the nesting times," Ms. Brashear said. "We don't want any nests."
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