For some, it's a heartwarming sight on a clear winter's day: flocks of geese flying in perfect V formation, winging their way over suburbia.
Where are they going? Not far enough, say many homeowners, businesses, schools, local officials and airport authorities in the Washington area.
Some 40 years after their numbers had dwindled to near extinction, 300,000 Canada geese live permanently in Virginia. Now Fairfax County authorities and local civic groups, led by a Lake Barcroft association called GeesePeace, are trying to cut the numbers.
A public meeting tonight at Chantilly High School marks the start of what organizers say is the first countywide effort in the United States to control the burgeoning Canada goose population in a humane and long-term way.
The centerpiece of the campaign amounts to family planning for geese. County officials and GeesePeace propose using satellite imagery and trained volunteers with hand-held global positioning devices to locate goose nests, then send in experts to "addle" the eggs. This means either coating them with vegetable or mineral oil, a technique that prevents them from hatching, or replacing them with fake eggs similar to the containers for l'Eggs pantyhose.
"Geese are not real bright," said County Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully), the meeting's host. "They'll sit on fake eggs" for quite a while before giving up, he said.
Simply collecting the eggs doesn't work. If geese find them missing, they will lay replacements. Destroying the nests is even more counterproductive, experts say, because geese will build new ones that volunteers then must search for.
And turning the birds into goose liver pate is out of the question. Frey and other animal lovers in GeesePeace and the Humane Society of the United States are determined to avoid the roundups and slaughters that the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Virginia officials have resorted to in recent years.
"We're attempting to be proactive and do something before we reach the point we've reached with [overpopulated] deer," Frey said.
The meeting, to which civic associations, business groups and golf course managers have been invited, is aimed at recruiting volunteers and "letting people know there's a way of solving the problem without killing," Frey said.
"Geese can do an incredible amount of damage," and sometimes they get downright ornery, Frey said, recalling an occasion when angry geese in Cub Run attacked his 100-pound German shepherd. "They were flapping their wings and hissing," he said.
"Our goal is not to get rid of every single goose in Fairfax County," said David Feld, a founder of GeesePeace. "We want to stabilize the population. But we need to start now, or the problem is going to get to the point where we won't be able to use humane solutions anymore."
While the Humane Society has succeeded in blocking most goose roundups in Virginia recently, roundups have been permitted around Reagan National and Dulles International airports to keep the birds from hitting planes. Since 1994, at least 25 "geese strikes" have been reported at the two airports, officials said. In the worst incident, 10 geese were sucked into an airliner's engine at Dulles in 1995, causing $1.7 million worth of damage.
Most of the goose nuisance, however, is more pedestrian: feces littering lawns and lakeside beaches; grass nibbled to the nub; interference with playground games and golf matches; and what some people regard as the birds' infernal honking.
GeesePeace was formed last spring and began to experiment with humane population control, including the use of border collies to scare the birds off. The dogs, fitted with special life vests, were taken out by boat to places where geese gathered, especially near the 150-acre lake's five private beaches.
Combined with other measures, the border collies worked, said Holly Hazard, an animal rights activist and member of GeesePeace. "But what we realized we were doing was moving the resident geese off to other sections of the county." A better plan, GeesePeace decided, would be to pare down the goose population countywide, largely through organized addling.
"We can become the first county in the nation to bring forward a long-term solution," Hazard said.