Border collies keep seagulls off the beach
Spend time along the Lake Michigan shoreline and you are bound to find seagulls. The birds do more than fly around squawking and annoying swimmers and sun bathers on the lake's beaches. By feeding on dead fish that wash ashore, they do some of the dirty work as well.
They can also, however, be responsible for beach closings. Studies have linked Seagull feces to the type of bacteria that can make people sick. Because the birds are federally protected (as are most migratory birds), and they have very few predators, their numbers continue to grow.
For the past five years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) contracted with Dr. Julie Kinzelman ('84 medical technology/biological sciences), the Racine Health Department and a team of graduate students to conduct extensive water-quality research. Last summer, a portion of the research involved the harassment of seagulls with trained border collies. The question to be answered: If the dogs keep the seagulls off the beach, and therefore reduce the amount of feces on the beach or shoreline, will water quality improve?
"There has been tons of published literature saying that seagull waste can cause beach closures," Kinzelman said. "But there isn't necessarily a good clear risk to human health or how much it impacts water quality."
Kinzelman and Monica Schmidt ('11 biological sciences) began by testing water quality for pathogens, the bacteria that makes people sick.
"Trained border collies were provided by a company as part of the EPA contract," Kinzelman said. "The border collies harassed the gulls and we continued to test water quality. Then the dogs stopped and the gulls came back and we continued to test."
When the dogs were there, the number of seagulls was reduced significantly. "The water quality is always generally good at North Beach," Kinzelman said. "But we could see a definite, significant decrease in the [bacteria] indicator. The average was 50 before [the dogs harassed the seagulls] and we had some water quality advisories during that time. And when the gulls were absent, the average count went down to six. And there were no advisories."
When the dogs did not patrol the beach, the seagulls returned and so did the bacteria indicator, back to its average count of 50. "That was a pretty big study," Kinzelman said. "We published it in Environmental Science & Technology magazine and Science Magazine picked it up."