One evening not long ago, I walked out from our house to get a better view of a full moon rising in the smoke and dust over the mountains. Across the face of the moon I saw the season’s first formation of geese. They were flapping along at maybe 500 feet above the valley floor, honking directions and fast food advice to each other, sounding like an orchestra of bicycle horns.
Twenty-some years ago I spent a short time working for a fellow named Shelly in Long Valley, Idaho. Shelly was one of the most honest, fair, friendly fellows I’ve had the privilege to have as a boss. So friendly, in fact, that his employees had to brace themselves when he was on the job, to keep from getting knocked off their feet when slapped on the back. His was the only outfit I ever worked for that gave each employee a turkey at both Thanksgiving and at Christmas.
We didn’t see much of Shelly in the fall because he was an addicted goose hunter, the kind that isn’t enjoying the sport unless he has been laying in a mucky, wet windy blind for eight hours. Late in the afternoon he’d show back up on the job, covered in mud and goose down, smelling and smiling like a golden retriever, to award that day’s bag to whomever wanted a ten pound, un-plucked, un-gutted honker.
Shelly, I miss you. I know that wherever you are, bird season is open, and you are laying out there in a dank pit with your earflaps pulled down, gloveless, squinting into the sunrise, honking away on a celestial goose call. I’ve taken a little break from wheelbarrowing concrete uphill to study the book on Canada geese. Hope you don’t mind if I introduce my readers to Branda canadensis moffitti, the Western Canada Goose.
First the science. They weigh eight to ten pounds when mature. They eat salads and seeds. There is not much evidence that Canada geese are bug or minnow eaters. When the feed gets scarce, they flap on further south, as far away as the Central Valley in California. Come Spring, the families return to within just a few miles of where they were born, and those that are two-or-more-years-old pair off for breeding purposes. Once formed, this bond lasts for life, but contrary to folklore, when one of the pair dies, the survivor doesn’t pine away. It finds a new mate.
Pairs of nesting honkers are extremely territorial and will actively pursue and harass other members of the flock that stumble onto that turf. They will nest darn near anywhere, on ditch banks, in trees, on cliffs, on muskrat houses but, like me, they prefer to nest on islands,. The female lays five or six eggs, incubates them for 28 days, and is pretty much chained to the nest except for short periods in morning and evening when she leaves, accompanied by the male, to eat, bathe and preen. While she is sitting on the nest, the gander stands guard nearby to discourage egg-sucking coyotes, skunks, crows and magpies.
On average, five out of the six eggs hatch, and both of the parents escort the young to water within 30 hours of birth. For the first week, Mama broods the goslings under her wings at night, but even though The Old Man is standing by to hiss and flap his wings at critters wanting to snarf up the little geese, there is a 20 percent loss of goslings between hatching and when they are able to fly away from danger themselves 60 days later.
Kids will be kids. While all this domestic stuff is going on, the yearlings and the unpaired two-year-olds that are not sexually active take a cruise to a sort of reverse Daytona Beach for single geese in the Beverly and Aberdeen lakes region west of Hudson Bay. There, in flocks as large as 50,000, young Canada geese from across North America spend a month listening to rock and roll and undergoing a wing molt, losing and replacing the large flight feathers on the trailing edges of their wings. During that time they are not very efficient fliers and the Arctic foxes fatten up.
Meanwhile, back on the home front, Mom and Pop are molting in between loads of diapers, and are strong flying machines again by the time the new quadruplets are ready for aerial lessons. About this time the teenagers show up, back in their home territory, and the family gathers up to head south.
Western Canada geese are notoriously late to leave their breeding grounds. Seeing a v-line of Canada geese in the Fall is usually a good sign that humans who plan to winter above the 45th parallel should be out cutting firewood because breeding season is over, the chicks are up, healthy, on the wing, and it is time to head south. Snow is not far off.
Geese have a fairly rigid social structure that translates into their flying formation. There is a definite pecking order. The larger families dominate the smaller families, that dominate the pairs, that dominate the individual orphans. When the sub-flocks gather into larger flocks to begin the migration from the breeding grounds to the wintering grounds, the lead goose in a flying formation is usually going to be the largest gander of the largest family, and that same goose will fly point through the entire migration. Unless, of course, it makes the fatal error of suckering into Shelly’s stand of decoys and ends up in the back of a pickup, riding to destiny with the caulk, nail guns, and pier blocks.