Saturday, January 29, 2011


Their wings folded to catch the last breath of the day’s air currents, a pair of Canada Geese hold themselves aloft over waters whose exact location on the surface map of North America is written in their very DNA.
Photo by Bill Houghton

Back in 1950, Frankie Lane introduced and made popular a new romantic ballad which opened with the words “My heart knows what the wild goose knows, and I must go where the wild goose goes”. At the time, those lyrics had a special appeal for me; in fact to this day, I associate my life-long love for wild things and wild places with the message enshrined in that refrain.
By the time I reached my early teens, Canadian geese were only beginning to make a return from near-extinction across North America. The sound of wild geese somewhere overhead was enough to bring me and my brothers running from wherever we happened to be, to shade our eyes and look upward in anticipation of the heightened heartbeat which would come as we found the wavering Vee’s. “Look! Wild geese” we would shout, running to tell others what we were seeing and hearing. So unusual was such an event then, that I can still picture the exact moment and circumstances surrounding it. (One fall morning, our herd of Jersey’s was left half-milked so that we could run from the barn to look skyward in response to the cries which came to our wondering ears.)
Today, many among us have forgotten the story of human intervention which brought about the redemption of a threatened species, hearing instead of how those same geese have become such a problem in populated areas, that their unbridled rate of reproduction has actually made them a local nuisance, and a menace to commercial aviation. (Fifty Canadian geese can produce and leave behind more than two tons of excrement a year!)
My wife and I are fortunate enough to live where we overlook 80 acres of pond water which becomes a sanctuary to hundreds of waterfowl, including migrants heading either north or south by season, and others who make it their year-round home. From our vantage point, we have learned much about the culture of wild geese, especially from being able to observe a combined flock of approximately 50 Canada’s who spend much of their year here, along the banks of the Virgin river, where nearby farm lands help to provide them with the four pounds of food each adult consumes in a typical day. We also enjoy watching the Bald and Golden eagles, Red tail hawks, falcons, and other birds of prey who share a relationship with the waterfowl, and perform an important role in preserving a natural balance in the economy of species.
For one thing, we have learned something about familial loyalty, leadership, devotion, persistence and integrity. It is usual for adult geese to mate for life – a life which can last up to 24 years – and to share the demanding responsibility of parenthood, year after year. “Our” geese build their nests and hatch their eggs in the relative safety of rugged cliffs high above the water, and we have learned to watch for the change in feeding and travel habits as breeding season transitions into the “home-making” routine. The female does not begin the incubating process until all her eggs are laid. From then on, and for the next 28 days, the male does the hunting and provides security, displaying a tireless work ethic and devotion. As he departs or arrives at the nest, a great deal of conversation takes place between the two parents, but then again, wild geese are highly vocal. (The entire flock will verbally signal their mutual agreement to depart the pond each day, and similarly celebrate their approach for landing later in the day with a decidedly different chorus of honking.)
When you hear the barking of migrating geese high overhead, they are actually voicing a message of constant encouragement to each other, just as they are thoughtful about alternating the leader’s position at the point of the vee, while assuming a flight formation which protects those who follow from the vortex created from the wings of those in front. If one of their number falters from illness or exhaustion, at least one other member of the flight will remain behind with the straggler until both are able to rejoin the group. (I witnessed this phenomenon once while camping in the lake country north and west of Lake Superior.)
In years past, we enjoyed the year-round presence of two White Holland domestic geese on the pond, obviously unable to fly or mate. What entertained and educated us was the unique but obviously welcome relationship which existed between these two “strange ones” and their wild relatives from Canada. After the wild babies were old enough to join the flock on the pond, the white geese would act as surrogate parents while the real parents were free to fly away and forage together during the day. We would marvel through our binoculars as we watched the caring activities of this volunteer “aunt and uncle”, day after day and year after year. We mourned when first one, and then the other fell prey to coyotes.
Recalling all this and what I have learned from it, I am drawn to the parting line of Frankie Lane’s old ballad:
“Tonight I heard the wild goose cry / Hangin’ north in the lonely sky/Tried to sleep, but it warn’t no use/’cause I am brother to the old wild goose.”

Wild geese (Branta Canadensis) wing their way over the vast wilderness of Ontario’s Lake Superior country in an original sketch by the author. Their annual migration route might very well involve 2200 miles of celestial navigation, in some of the world’s worst weather.
Al Cooper Sketch

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