Scientists enlist border collies to chase off beach-polluting gulls

Scientists enlist border collies to chase off beach-polluting gulls
A border collie patrols a beach on Lake Michigan as part of a study on reducing contamination from bacteria in gull droppings. (Elizabeth Alm)

Dogs aren’t usually associated with clean beaches.

But new research has recognized border collies for their ability to chase off gulls that foul beach water and sand with their droppings.


The experiment was launched two years ago by researchers at Central Michigan University who were asked by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to find new ways to control a surging population of gulls that gather on the shores of the Great Lakes.

Not only do the birds swoop down to snatch sandwiches from picnickers and annoy beach-goers, they also poop right where people swim. That makes them a major source of E. coli, bacteria health officials test for as an indicator of pathogens that can make swimmers sick. When elevated levels are detected, authorities post warnings or close beaches.

Elizabeth Alm, a microbiologist at Central Michigan University who led the research, said a review of the literature on the subject found a variety of bird-exclusion techniques using wires, strobe lights, lasers and pyrotechnics -- but few that would be suitable for a public beach.

Enter the border collie.

She and other researchers at the university were familiar with the breed's reputation for intelligence, agility and hard work. So they decided to audition them. Could they use their keen herding abilities and intense gazes to scare off the offending gulls and lower bacteria levels at the beach?

To find out, the researchers leased two trained border collies that had previously been used by the U.S. Air Force to keep geese off runways.

During the summers of 2012 and 2013, scientists assigned each dog to patrol a stretch of public beach on Lake Michigan, leaving two other nearby sections of beach dog-free as a control.

The researchers counted gulls and measured bacteria levels to conclude that border collies were highly effective at warding off gulls from beaches. Samples showed the beaches patrolled by a border collie had significantly lower counts of bacteria than those without dogs.

"They control very well," Alm told the Los Angeles Times. "You just kind of point and say 'go' and they take off. Then they chase away the gulls and you whistle them back."

Beach authorities around the country have employed trained animals, such as trained hawks and falcons, to shoo away gulls that poop along the shore. But their choices are limited because gulls are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and cannot be harmed or killed.

Alm said the findings, being presented Monday at a meeting of the American Society for Microbiology in Boston, could give beach beach managers a valuable new option.

Border collies, she said, “are perfect for this because they resemble coyotes, the gulls’ only real natural predator. They also have that chasing and stalking instinct. They chase the gulls but don’t catch them or kill them. And they love to work.”