Aronimink's low-tech, organic - and peppy - pest-control

Charlie takes a breather at Aronimink's 11th tee. "She's just prepared to chase anything that moves," says a supervisor.
Charlie takes a breather at Aronimink's 11th tee. "She's just prepared to chase anything that moves," says a supervisor.
Posted: June 30, 2010

The 90 or so landscapers toiling over the bent grass at Aronimink Golf Club for this week's AT&T National tournament aren't the only ones charged with keeping the course immaculate.

Curled up in an office during most of the golfing hours and flitting about dozens of cedar-and-redwood nest boxes scattered around the course are, respectively, a border collie who runs Aronimink's Canada goose patrol, and flocks of bluebirds and swallows whose presence is courted for their insect-eating prowess.

The low-tech, wholly organic approaches to pest control are likely to draw little notice from the up to 40,000 golf fans who show up to check out Tiger Woods and other PGA luminaries at the show, though a closer look will reveal the birdhouses sited amid the fescue of the roughs.

Course regulars fondly swap stories about Charlie, the black-and-white canine called "part of the staff" by course superintendent John Gosselin for her help with geese and other critter interlopers - including foxes and, two summers ago, a coyote.

"She's just prepared to chase anything that moves," assistant superintendent Ben Little said. "Never actually caught anything, but she has fun with it."

She scampered alongside Little's golf cart Monday afternoon as he coordinated a small army of mowers and other course-groomers. She scanned the skies and dashed away whenever a bird - or an airplane - caught her attention.

"She's kind of doing a patrol thing," said Little as Charlie took off again.

Gosselin said his station at Aronimink takes on elements of wildlife management, between the birds, squirrels, fish, turtles, and frogs that populate the course and the skies above it. Sharp-eyed fans might even spot birds of prey from nearby nests during the tournament, he said.

"Hawks love golf courses," Gosselin said, "because there's all this open land."

Charlie's job is to help deter animals that interfere with the golfers. Geese, for example, are liable to leave droppings that build up "to where that's all you're walking on," Gosselin said.

So, 41/2 years ago, club officials imported Charlie to make the course a less-inviting place to nest.

"Of all the things I've seen, it's the most humane," Gosselin said. "No geese get harmed or killed."

By contrast, bluebirds and tree swallows are so welcomed around Aronimink that club members have for years maintained a network of wooden nest boxes and monitor the population diligently.

"They eat a lot of mosquitoes and insects," said club member Keel Jones, a retired accountant who regularly e-mails a census of the bird population to club staffers.

In an average year, Aronimink's birdhouses will host 90 to 100 hatchlings, Jones said. He inherited the job four years ago from other club members and now sends regular reports on the bird population to the Cornell Ornithology Lab. Sometimes, he said, the grounds crew's lawn mowers are noticeably trailed by the tree swallows because the mowers kick up insects.

In her evening rounds Monday, Charlie paid little notice to the circling swallows, focusing her attention on larger interests. For a time, her brother, named Ross after course architect Donald Ross, had also patrolled Aronimink. But a palpable fear of trucks meant he was better suited to roam elsewhere, so he was sent to Little's family farm north of Pittsburgh.

Charlie, however, appeared fearless as she darted playfully in front of moving golf carts. Two years ago, John Stevens was golfing Aronimink's 17th hole when a mangy creature turned up near a bridge.

"I said, 'What's a coyote doing here?' " Stevens said.

By the time staffers figured out what it was, Charlie had barked and stared it down long enough to run it off, Stevens and Little said.

This week's golf fans, though, probably will have few, if any, chances to glimpse the course's watchdog. She obediently stays in the maintenance offices during most daytime hours, napping to rest up for the evenings when she can bound heedlessly around the course.

"She has a tendency to run through bunkers and leave footprints and stuff," Little said. "Golfers don't really like it."


Contact staff writer Derrick Nunnally at 610-313-8212 or dnunnally@phillynews.com.

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