By Lisa Freeman

For most golfers, there’s nothing more satisfying than bagging a few birdies on the golf course. But more and more, golfers are enjoying birdies of a different kind, thanks to programs like the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program.

A flash of yellow in a treetop; a shadow soaring overhead; a sudden splash in a pond — those may be the sights and sounds of golf balls flying around your golf course… or they could be the sights and sounds of something a bit more unexpected: Yellow Warblers, Red-tailed Hawks or Mallard Ducks.

Flame-colored Tanager, Photo by Tom-Grey

Flame-colored Tanager: Tanagers are some of the most colorful songbirds you might see on a golf course in southern California.  This one was spotted at Alisa Viejo Country Club, a par 72 golf course in Orange County, CA (Photo courtesy of Tom Grey and Audubon International.)

Some of my favorite bird sightings in the US mainland have been on golf courses: a pair of Western Tanagers at The Lakes Golf course in El Segundo, CA; Bluebirds at The Heroes Golf Course in West Los Angeles; Snowy Egrets at Marriott’s Manhattan Beach Golf Club, Manhattan Beach and a variety of Hawks at Rancho Park Golf Course, Los Angeles.

Snowy Egret at the Marriott Manhattan Beach Golf Course

An elegant Snowy Egret carefully scans the lake water for food at the Marriott Manhattan Beach Golf Course in Manhattan Beach, CA. (photo courtesy of Marriott Manhattan Beach Golf Course and Audubon International)

The golf world has come a long way over the last decade to invite nature back to the golf course and reverse what was once a growing stigma about the over-use of fertilizers, pesticides and other chemicals that were said to be polluting ground and surface water, harming wildlife and creating ill will with conservation-minded citizens and municipalities. Back in 2008, a report from the National Golf Course Owners Association (NGCOA) stated that the golf industry needed to act quickly to address the issues of water supply and conservation. Without action, it said, the industry would be left vulnerable to on-going damage to its reputation and increasing legislation from policymakers, municipalities and environmentalists.

Since that time, much has happened. From solar-powered golf carts to new technologies in turf grass, sprinkler systems and carbon-neutral engineering, the golf industry has worked hard to develop a comprehensive sustainability agenda and a greener reputation.

Perhaps no program has been more integral to golf’s “go green” success story than the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program (ACSP). This program began as a cooperative effort between the United States Golf Association (USGA) and Audubon International, a non-profit that promotes ecologically-sound land management and the conservation of natural resources and wildlife. 

Audubon International is an environmental non-profit that works with multiple industries to improve their environmental management.  The golf industry represents the majority of its membership and golf courses in the program pay annual fees to support ACSP’s voluntary mission-based educational programs. 

“The USGA has been the perfect partner in helping us grow the sanctuary program,” said Tara Donadio, Audubon International's program director. “Their funding was integral in building the resources we needed to kick-start the ACSP.”

When the organizations first were introduced, the USGA was intrigued with Audubon’s ideas of stewardship. They invited Ronald G. Dodson, ACSP founder and then president of Audubon International, to speak at a USGA educational session at the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America conference. That conference led to the creation of the USGA-sponsored sanctuary program in 1991.

The USGA provided ACSP with over $2 million in financial support to offset fees associated with administering the new program at golf courses. In addition, they partnered to create educational and communication materials for the ACSP.

Since then, nearly 3000 golf courses from 30 countries around the world have joined ACSP and more than 842 facilities in the United States have been designated as Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuaries.

Audubon International provides each golf course with one-on-one assistance in devising and sustaining an appropriate environmental plan. Courses certification can take, on average, up to three years. To receive certification, golf courses must fulfill requirements in six categories:

  1. Environmental Planning
  2. Wildlife and Habitat Management
  3. Community Outreach and Education
  4. Chemical Use Reduction and Safety
  5. Water Conservation
  6. Water Quality Management.

One of the biggest changes courses can make is to develop a comprehensive Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program, minimizing fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, or using organic formulas.

“We get very positive comments from courses which have done this,” said Donadio. “Not only do they get see a return on investment in terms of money savings from reductions of chemicals, and an increase in wildlife, but they see a positive community reaction. We promote many fun ways to educate and engage the community in wildlife awareness experiences, such as working with schools to build bird boxes for the courses, or inviting the community to do bird sightings and species counts.”

Killdeer with eggs, photo by Laurie Dann

Killdeer with eggs, Photo by Laurie Dann

The types and varieties of wildlife that can show up on a golf course vary with the region. Donadio reports that songbirds, herons, ducks, geese, hawks, osprey and eagles will often return year after year to certified courses. The courses attract species of the four-legged variety too, including coyotes in California, elk in Montana, foxes in New Jersey, and kangaroos in Australia.

“We’re proud that our work has helped thousands of golf courses world-wide to save water, improve wildlife habitat, and reduce chemical use,” added Donadio. “We believe that we’ve created standards for sustainability that golf course property managers and designers will think about when they’re designing a new property. In fact, our Signature Program works with golf course architects to create sustainable plans that are ideal for their specific ecosystems.”


Many of the best-rated golf courses in the world are ACSP courses.  In California, a few of them include The Links at Spanish Bay andthe Pebble Beach Golf Links in Pebble Beach, the PGA West Courses and La Quinta Resort and Club in La Quinta, and Furnace Creek Golf Course in Death Valley. Yet, currently there are only just over 60 golf courses in California that have been awarded certification by the ACSP. And with more than 900 golf courses in the state, that leaves a lot of work to be done.

The California drought is encouraging more courses to consider certification.

“While we want golf courses to come to us organically, sometimes it’s water management issues that trigger courses to call us,” Donadio said.

According to Donadio, 100 more courses in California currently are working towards certification, many due to regional water restrictions. The ACSP can work with the courses to provide helpful guidelines, such as having golf courses water greens at night, installing sprinkler systems that are customized to specific areas, and installing water-monitoring devices and moisture meters.  The program also provides guidelines for water reclamation and recirculation.

In the Los Angeles area, only one golf course has achieved ACSP certification to date:  the Marriott Manhattan Beach Golf Course. This par 3 executive course in Manhattan Beach, with its palm trees and its lake, is like a tiny, green oasis in the middle of the sprawling Los Angeles concrete jungle.

The Marriott Manhattan Beach Golf Course has been certified since 2011, according to Valleycrest Golf Course Superintendent Seth Warden, who oversees maintenance of the course. Warden said that getting the certification was part of an overall strategy by Marriott Hotels to certify all of their golf courses and to better focus on conservation and resource management.

But for Ted Wells, Marriott Manhattan Beach Golf Course Manager and a longtime member of the NGCOA, there was another good reason to get certification: “It was just the right thing to do," said Wells.

“In Manhattan beach there’s not much open land,” Wells explained.  “In the middle of an urban region it’s nice to have a park-like area with water and wildlife. We are a refuge for geese, ducks, raccoons, skunks, possums, foxes and squirrels.”

To make this transition from a typical urban golf course to a conservation-minded ASCP course was not all that difficult, Wells said, thanks to the guidelines provided by Audubon International’s six-step program.

“We had to adopt a different mindset to change the way we did things,” Wells said. “Most importantly, we have implemented an Integrated Pest Management approach which has significantly reduced our use of pesticides, herbicides, nitrates and other chemicals that are harmful to wildlife, people and the environment in general.  When I was a kid people used DDT and you just can’t do that anymore. We’re very conscious of what we put in the ground and water. We use biodegradable and organic applications to manage the algae in our lake and streams. We also have a very hands-on approach to managing aquatic weeds.”

“We’re raking aquatic weeds to the sides and hand-pulling the leaves instead of spraying,” said Warden. “It’s labor-intensive but that’s what we have to do.  We have very limited pesticide and fertilizer applications.”

In terms of dealing with the drought, Warden says the course has been using reclaimed water for six or seven years.

“One great thing about using reclaimed water is that the source is high in nitrogen, so when we’re watering we’re also fertilizing at the same time, which is a very sustainable approach,” Warden said.

Another unique approach the course uses instead of pesticides is mosquito fish.

“Most courses that have lakes have mosquitoes,” said Wells. “Our lake has mosquito fish! They’re about the size of a guppy and they eat mosquitoes, so we never have to worry about using pesticides to control mosquitoes. LA County sometimes comes and harvests our mosquito fish to use elsewhere around the city. For some reason the mosquito fish thrive in our lake.”

Another of the ASCP requirements was that the golf course develop habitat areas on the course.

Eurasian Collared Dove, Photo by Tom Grey

Eurasian Collared Dove | Photo by Tom Grey

“Our wildlife habitat areas have made a difference in our golf course appearance,” Wells said. “They have also attracted waterfowl. Some of the geese and ducks have been coming here for years. We know it’s the same birds; we can recognize some of them. There’s one who has a bad leg; he’s been coming back for a long time. We counted the geese three years ago and there were 182 that migrated in over the season. This year there were 75. It goes up and down. You can see the geese population falling off. But more have been coming in this year. For me, there’s nothing in the world cuter than a baby goose.”

Some golfers would take issue with having waterfowl on the golf course. Many feel that ducks and geese are a nuisance and leave the course unclean. Some courses control the problem with falconers and hawks, or radio controlled gliders. The Manhattan Beach Marriott has come up with its own unique way to ease the problem.

Environmentally Sensitive Area Signage

“Our golf course superintendent has a couple of herding dogs that keep our waterfowl within certain boundaries,” said Wells. “The dogs just gently herd them off the greens and keep them near the water, so there is less damage to the course. Also, if guests express concerns about the geese making a mess, we explain to them about our certification and conservation efforts, and all of a sudden the geese are not a problem. They see the bigger picture and they feel proud to be golfing on a course that is involved in conservation.

“We hope that more people will appreciate it in the years ahead. The way urban areas are developing; there won’t be any wildlife if we don’t do something. It’s up to us. It comes down to protecting natural resources and sustainability. Audubon International has been a source of motivation. Their program directs us in areas where we needed to be directed. Even though it might cost us more to be certified due to the many labor-intensive things we do, we’re just not interested in irresponsible environmental practices; it’s healthier for our golfers and our environment.

“We’re treating the golf course like we would our own backyard. It really is our backyard. We take a walk every day and enjoy walking on the grass and seeing the birds and wildlife.It’s the way to go – the right thing to do for now and the future.”


Lisa Freeman is a public relations professional, freelance writer, former editor-in-chief of Ladies Links Fore Golf magazine and a birding enthusiast who has travelled the world in search of exotic birds and birding adventures. You can reach Lisa at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.