Canada Geese III


 



Some Observations on a Geese Community

 

 

       For a human-animal to come to know another kind of animal, particularly a wild or non-domestic animal, is extremely difficult. To know a non-human animal, bird or other natural being requires patience, selfless watching, admiration, indulgence, open mindedness, listening, a willingness to trust, and ultimately a willingness to love.

       It is much harder to come to know a wild being than it is to know another human. Wild birds, snakes, mountain lions, foxes, wild forests and deserts are so far outside human concerns and interests that they are much harder to get to know than speakers of a foreign language, people of another race, class or ethnicity. It takes much more time and dedication, even reverence, to get to know wild beings. Love grows slowly, and requires great amounts of time to grow. This is the primary reason so little is known about wild animals, birds or beings in the sea. Few will spend the time, few care, few even know that such radically other and wild and hidden lives exist. Wild birds and animals exist in almost another dimension than humans. The failure to learn about and be sensitive to their lives is now having disastrous consequences on many species. Human ignorance, malice, fear and myths and falsehoods about animals and nature abound, and little has been done to correct this sad fact.

       I have heard farmers say that they never name their domestic farm animals because they are going to kill them, and not naming them makes the killing easier. This shows how much human emotions are locked inside language as a system of cultural and emotional control. Naming the animal to be killed somehow gives the animal a more sympathetic value to the farmer. Not naming it makes the animal foreign, other, mere future meat for the table.  Depersonalizing an animal makes it easier to kill it. Impersonal study also creates distance and alienation, and this is one reason science has contributed to the  destruction of of nature. The degree to which humans impersonalize and distance themselves from animals and nature partly because humans are trapped and alienated by their own language. Wildness is in the realm of the unspeakable, the ignored, even the shunned. Human languages are cultural prisons, in a way, because they are abstract, and have lost touch with a concrete and direct experience of non-human worlds and ways of being.

     One must abandon the cultural conceit that human language is superior to other forms of communication. One must stop listening to the words in one's head and listen to the wordless wonders being expressed all around us in nature.  Real looking at the world of non-human beings requires trying to stop one's thinking in terms of human concepts, culture and languages. One must unlearn such absurd beliefs as the conceit that humans have been given "dominion" over the earth, or that humans are "made in god's image". Wild geese, like pristine forests, need no "stewards", landlords or gods. The suggestion that mankind "owns" or has dominion over ravens or eagles, ospreys, forests, lakes, elephants or foxes is laughable.

          One must learn to value and prize the rebellious arrogance of wild things. Their arrogance is their freedom from us, their fierce devotion to their own lives. Wild things despise the mere suggestion of human "stewardship" and "dominion". The Acorn Woodpecker has its own 'dominion', thank you, as does the Flicker and the Beaver. Wild horses will not willingly submit to human self importance, nor should they. I have never quite been able to admire the human domination of horses or horse racing nor the myraid other ways that humans "tame", "break", domesticate and abuse other species. The falcon screams freedom, and the lion despises his cage, and the polar bear must have his freedom to range across thousands of miles of snow. Even the chickadee's sounds express fierce opposition to human  control, capture and limitations. Natural beings have their own integrity, their own notion of rights, their own culture, their own ways of seeing.

       If one would know animals one must abandon most of what one was taught in schools.  Indeed, young children, prior to adolescence, usually have a strong affinity with animals and nature, and come to understand much about them easily. This affinity appears to be innate. This sympathy is often destroyed in most children by the time they are past adolescence, unless an adult supports their interest in nature of animals or they simply refuse to accept the cultural conditioning against nature and animals. The culture teaches children by example that there is an impenetrable wall separating nature from the human and that humans are superior and that nature exists merely for human use and domination. This is the lie of "speciesism", and a very effective lie, much like the lies of racism and sexism. To unlearn the cultural prejudices one must give up being influenced by speciesist cultural expression, often conveyed variously in religion, on T.V., in books and through business and government. Then one must learn to listen as possible to the voices of the cultures in nature. Natural communities do express their own cultural norms and values. You must let animals and birds "steward" and guide you. You must give up your culturally determined need of power, of being ascendant, superior, and better than nature and animals. You are not better, and not superior. Revere them and grant them their freedom and their independence and they will begin teaching you who they are. They might even begin teaching you who you are.

            So, with these general observations in mind, which I have learned from watching many different  birds and animals in their natural settings, I want to talk here, on this page, about just one kind animal or bird: Geese, specifically, Canada Geese. They are extraordinary beings, quite as amazing and full of variety and wonder as human beings. In some respects they are an improvement on human beings, and certainly their devotion to each other, to community, to their young, and their spare and effective use of their own non-linguistic language has much to recommend it over human cruelty, was, greed, selfishness and need of power.

    When I first started studying them some years ago, I could only grasp very simple things about them. I became aware that my culture had taught me nothing whatsoever about them, other than that they migrate. Indeed, my society had taught me virtually nothing about the natural world that is all around us. Nearly everything I have learned about it I have learned on my own. The society I grew up in had built a wall between me and the natural world made of prejudice, hatred, willful ignorance, neglect, will to power, greed and speciesism. I wanted to climb over this wall of ignorance, as I had done with other animals and birds and with nature generally. I knew that climbing over the wall that separates nature from Euro-American society would make me somewhat of an outsider to that society.  I knew that by climbing over the wall, I too would have to learn to live in a threatening environment, as do threatened species and indigenous cultures. There are perils in siding with the victims, outcastes and neglected who live outside our societies. There are perils in siding with beings that our society abuses neglects or treats with malice or indifference.  One becomes a sort of sensitive coyote, wandering outside the walls of the town, wary of all the dangers that come from the town. One becomes aware that a whole different way of living and being is not just ignored by the people who live behind the walls of the human city, but that the way of nature and animals is largely hated by these people, and they want to exploit it, destroy it, limit or abuse it for their own selfish interests.

      I knew Canada Geese were beautiful birds and had watched them flying with wonder and admiration. I knew some people despised them for their droppings, which has always struck me as hypocritical. Canada Geese droppings are small and dissolve in the rain, and are hardly a health danger, whereas human droppings, waste and garbage are everywhere and pollute whole rivers and ecosystems. So I already knew Geese were being scapegoated by human hypocrisy and that in many towns and cities they were being killed.  Those who scar the land with golf courses, cattle, parking lots, strip mines, air pollutants, clear cutting and shopping malls did not like Geese walking on their manicured grass. So they shoot them. Hunters kill them for fun and the feeling of power it gives them. Yet the same society that targets Geese, and many other animals, knows virtually nothing about them. Ignorance and malice often go together.

      One of the first things that endeared me to Geese was seeing their goslings. The goslings are a pale yellowish and green, almost the color of a new grass shoots, or the emerging petal of a daffodil or a new leaf just beginning to spread out from a bud on a tree. Yes, the color of goslings is the color of spring, the color of new grass, new leaves, new flower petals. Their young feathers shine and glisten in the sun.
They usually hatch from their eggs in May, in the area where I live, and the solicitousness of their parents impressed and amazed me. Their parents are highly protective of them and the female will often lift her wing slightly and let them gather under her wing for warmth and security. They go under her wings to seek shelter from the storm, and they rest there at night. She covers them to keep them safe for predators.  With a gentle sound from her, I have seen them all scurry under her wings where it is safe. The gander, the father of the goslings, stands watch over the little ones and their mother, very proudly, his strong neck raised high and looking about in all directions, guarding and protecting them all.


 NESTING SPACES and the COMMUNAL WEB

   Nearly anyone who remembers their mother can recall feeling the need of her protection and safety, and who, as it were, took one under her wings as a child. I have even sought safety and refuge, on occasion, under the wings of my mother as an adult. Then, with the passage of years, as she grew weak and confused, I took her under my wings and sheltered her from harms as best and as long as I could.
My own mother helped me understand something of the intimate lives of Canada Geese and just how much their lives share essential things in common with mine.




 

        But I am getting ahead of my story. I had watched geese in many places and had grown increasingly fascinated with them and their behavior. But I had not yet found a nesting site where I could watch them more intimately. I finally did find such a site at Hero's Wetland, the same place where I had been studying Orioles and other birds. The first pair I watched nest lived  almost immediately under  the tree where Hero, the baby Oriole, had been born and the next year they nested again in the same group of trees. I called the pair Hero's Geese, since they nested on the little peninsula where the Orioles had nested two years in a row.

       I watched the Geese intensively for about three years, less so in recent years, since we moved away from that area. The first year I watched them was a constant marvel. Hero's wetland lies along a river, and is periodically flooded by the river, usually in spring an early summer. This, along with rain, sustains water levels in the Wetland.  Some years, when there is less rain, the wetland has dried out in August and early fall, although not for long and never entirely, such that the frogs and turtles are able to return for the next season.  The total population of Geese in the Hero's flock was about 90 birds in August or September. This number appeared to be diminished by the following spring to 60 or 70 birds.  I puzzled over what happened to the 30 or so birds who were missing after their migration in the Spring. I suspect hunting had something to do with the loss, as they migrate out of the safe, non-hunting area where Hero's Wetland is located. Also, I believe that some of the young birds, yearlings and two year olds,  leave the Hero's community to join other communities.

       Hero's Geese, I figured out, after watching them nest over two years, where something like elders in the community. They were very successful at nesting, unlike some of the other pairs, particularly the younger ones. Hero's Geese managed to enable all of their eggs to survive. They had three goslings some 30 days after the eggs were laid. I watched the female nest most of the days of this period and she was remarkably faithful to her nest site. The more time I spent near her the more I admired her abilities. She was extremely gentle and tender with the eggs and turned them often. She pulled down out of her own breast to soften the grasses in which the eggs lay. The soft down feathers were lilac in color and on colder days, when she would feed in the wetland a short distance from the nest, she covered the eggs with the down and grasses. On unseasonably warm days she visibly suffered sitting in the sun. But she was devoted and endured. Her husband, the gander, was always near her, protecting her, watching out for dangers, attentive.  He would watch the nest more closely when she left it to feed. Their communications were quite complex, unlike what the bird books say, which describe Geese communications as being elementary. But the female would often alert her husband to another goose approaching before he saw it. In other words, she was quite able, through carefully modulated sound, to direct his attention to an incoming danger. The offending goose or geese were usually one of the yearlings or two year olds. He would chase off the interloper, sometimes with her help. Once this was done the pair would make sounds toward each other, as if reaffirming their commitments to the nesting area and to each other. During events like this, the communications of the Geese were quite complex. The ability to influence the minds of others is supposed to be a trait of "higher" species, like Dolphins and Orangutans and humans. But the notion of "higher" or "key" species is a self serving, anthropomorphic projection. Most humans  underestimate animals and birds, as well as nature generally, while they vastly over estimate their own importance.  This underestimation of natural beings is built into the sciences. The Geese I watched were quite able to communicate very complex things to eachother, in ways that were both simple and beautiful. I sometimes found myself wishing that my own language could be as direct and unambiguous as the non-linguistic language of Geese. Human communication is very cumbersome and has many faults built into it.

      On one occasion, where I was watching a different community of Geese a few miles up river from Hero's, I saw a group of ten or twelve Geese try to stop a raccoon from eating eggs out of one of the nests. The raccoon was already on top of the nest, and apparently the mother and father of the nest had been too far away to defend it soon enough. They failed to stop the predation. But in other cases I believe the Geese succeeded by group efforts of this kind. There were many Raccoons and a Fox at Hero's and some of the nests were destroyed by Raccoons. I witnessed one such event and the loss of the eggs was due to the parents, who appeared to be young geese, having spent too long a time too far away from the nest, allowing the raccoon an opening to steal and eat the eggs. On another occasion I found the recently eaten carcass of a goose, apparently killed by the fox. But this was only one example. The fox was often around and it managed only to get one goose. So the Geese are apparently quite able to keep themselves safe from Foxes, most of the time. I believe they also can fend off raccoons if they are vigilant enough, and saw the Geese harassing Raccoons a number of times. I watched once when a red Tailed Hawk landed in the branch of a tree above a goose and a gander and their four goslings. The parents saw the Hawk and called the goslings under their wings, and looked up at the Hawk with threatening postures, honking. The Hawk gave up his notion of eating the goslings.

       There are various hazards to nesting on the ground. Foxes, Raccoons and Hawks are three such hazards. But there is also the need to keep the eggs warm. Young nesting geese, who appear to be inexperienced, sometimes stay away from the nest too long and the eggs die from exposure, becoming too cold. A few of the nests at Hero's failed for this reason. In addition, sometimes nests fail because the eggs are sterile. Nesting is certainly in part a learned activity, and once of the valuable things about the larger nesting community at Hero's is that the older Geese, who are more successful at nesting, provide an example of how to deal with the hazards of nesting on the ground. This was demonstrated to me over a number of years, when drought and human alterations in the environment caused the water levels to differ sharply from year to year. The geese responded to the loss of eggs in resulting from these changes by building different kinds of nests over different years. For instance, before the more recent higher water levels, the geese tended to nest on peninsulas and the two or three islands in the pond. But when water levels rose above what was safe for nesting on these islands and some nests failed the geese clearly thought out the problem and came up with solutions by the next year. So now there are new kinds of nests at Heroes. One nest is on a 5 foot height stump of an old sycamore tree that has fallen, Other nests are on top of fallen logs in the water.  One goose built her nest up out of the water of reeds and bog grasses, and very good idea since she can raise the nest to the height she wants it by augmenting the grasses.

    There are other threats to the community of nesting Geese besides other animals and rising water levels. Occasionally, I would see a pair or group of Geese of unknown origin fly into the Wetland and this would cause trouble, with the result that the gander of one of the nest areas would chase off the visitors, head down, threatening to bite. Most of these threats are quite harmless, and rarely resulted in an actual bite. I only saw a truly violent confrontation between the Geese twice. Once when a goose got in between a gander and its newborn gosling. The gander saw this as a real threat to the goslings and was very vicious in chasing off the other goose.

     The worst occasion of violence that I saw was between two nesting ganders of Hero's wetland-- two Geese that were probably related and nested 50 feet from each other. The circumstances were these: there was an especially violent and heavy rainstorm about midway in the nesting season. The river was much higher than usual and flooded the wetland, raising the water level more than a foot. this resulted in drowning a number of the nests. All the eggs were destroyed in these nests. I arrived at Hero's while the storm was still raging.  One of the pairs of Geese whose nest had been lost had left the nest site with his mate and they had crossed into the nesting area of another pair. The gander who lost his nest attacked very viciously the gander who did not lose his nest. It was an extremely violent attack and probably resulted in some injury, though nothing bad enough to be visible. It was very clear that the goose that had lost the nest was extremely distraught from his loss. Geese certainly have emotions and complex psychological reactions to stress, much as humans do. The attack on the goose who did not lose his goslings was clearly born of frustration and anger.  With humans, suffering and extreme hardship produce similar reactions. In areas where there is poverty and over population, stress levels increase crime rates and violent altercations. It is the same with Geese. The storm ruined many nests, and this produced frustration and anger in the Geese who suffered the hardships. The gander lashed out violently against his nearest neighbor, who may well have been his brother or cousin.

      One of the saddest events I witnessed with the Geese at Hero's was watching a young female who sat on her eggs over 40 days. Generally the eggs hatch out by 35 days, but in this case it did not happen. She kept sitting on them past their due date. She became visibly distraught and nervous about the eggs. When Geese are suffering from the heat they open their mouths slightly and appear to pant somewhat.  This goose was doing this while she sat on her nest. But more than this, she began to pace around the nest, pulling out grasses with her beak and tucking the grass under her rump behind her. She did this in a circular fashion, walking a few steps around the nest, pulling up grass, tucking the grass behind her, walking a few more steps and doing it again, and so on, in a circular path around her failed nest. The pulling up and tucking behind of the grasses is what they do when they begin to build the nest. So it appeared that this goose, having sat on her nest over forty days, with the weather becoming increasingly hot, had become nervous with worry, and she expressed this as a neurotic imitation of nest building activity, but the activity had no purpose, other than expression of her frustration at the failure of the nest. It was a very moving thing to see and I wished I could have helped her somehow. I felt a deep compassion for her plight. She worked so hard to bring her little ones into the world and they died in the eggs. It was very much as if a woman who lost her child, nevertheless continued to prepare for its arrival, buying the expected one clothes or a crib. But the child was gone and she could not face the fact. It was very clear that the goose that had lost the her babies was extremely distraught from the loss, much like the gander I saw who became violent after the storm destroyed his nest. In both cases the tragic nature of the events resulted in extreme reactions in the emotional lives of these sensitive and wonderful birds. They take nesting very seriously, and the loss of a nest is an occasion where their suffering is visible and acute.

    I never saw any evidence of outright cruelty among the Geese, though they could be severe with each other when there were conflicts. But there is nothing like the malicious and cruel ignorance and violence of which humans are capable. One day I found some human adult footprints leading up to a nest, and the nest was destroyed and the eggs were gone. It was an act of malice, that had no other point than mindless destruction. On another occasion, I saw two teen age boys about to hit the Hero's Geese female with a large stick. I had been watching her for weeks and she had grown accustomed to me. But I never went closer than twenty feet to the nest and never approached the area at all without a discrete announcement that i was coming.. These boys were about to hit her across the neck with the stick. They probably would have killed her. I screamed from a distance and they stopped. I saw the same young man on another occasion trying to harm frogs.
      Geese do not have this tendency to malice and cruelty. Their communities work marvelously well, and the only real threat to their well being is humans.

 




Part of the Community (detail)
 




 COMMUNITY NOT "TERRITORY" 

       One thing that became clear very soon after I began studying Geese is that they do not have "territory" in any sense of ownership. Mallards, other ducks, small birds, herons, muskrats, turtles and frogs, among others, regularly crossed or shared the nesting area. Even some Geese were allowed within the area, within certain limits. The relation of Hero's Geese to other pairs of Geese nesting in proximity to them was close and cooperative for the most part. The nesting Geese joined together to face common threats. I began to see that what I was looking at was not an isolated pair in a territory, but a community of complex relations. There were many nests at Hero's Wetland. The whole notion of their being territorial boundaries, in the sense of ownership of private property, or discrete nuclear families in competition, disappeared. This notion of territorial natural selection is a projection of capitalist values on the natural world. The projection dissolves on closer examination.

    What the Geese were doing was not defending a territory, but preserving a lattice of communal relations in the nesting area and doing so only in regard to the safety of the nests.  The proximity of many nests in the same area, each joined to the others, and each separated by a boundary of respect, established a kind of web of relations among all the nesting pairs. The Geese community consisted of interlocking cooperative nest areas. There were clear relations and alliances between the various families. Any pair that made certain honks because of a threat was often echoed by the nearby pairs, who also became concerned about the threat. They would sometimes join in on the chasing away of the interloper, and the severity of the expulsion of the offending goose appeared to depend on what the relationship was. Geese from different flocks who landed at Hero's Wetland appeared to be treated more harshly than Geese from the Hero's flock. What initially appeared to be separate territories was actually an interlocking web of cooperative nesting spaces, each one an expression of a larger communal relationship.

       The notion of territory is a dogma in evolutionary theory and ornithology. But I started doubting its validity because of what I saw the Geese doing. The Geese were not creating territories, but life spaces, a nesting community, a communal web of nesting spaces, and the apparent arguments between geese were something much more complex and interesting than the mere assertion of capitalist values, land rights or ownership or competition among nuclear families. A flock of Geese is a cooperative colony, not a bunch of separate family units of obsessed with their own advantage and territory.
  
    The reference of most of the behavior of Geese to the larger community is constant across the spectrum of their lives. Even in the mating ritual, (described in the poem "Coats of Liquid Light") , the Geese often call out after mating to the rest of the flock. "We have done this" they seem to be saying.  Moreover, even before they begin mating, the Geese pairs chose out an area where they will nest. The mating goes over days and even a week, often many times a day.

     There is thus a close attachment not only to each other but also to a place. One rather humorous detail of their attachment to place and the relation of other species in the area to the Geese is the following. A pair of Geese I was watching mate were observed by a pair of Blue Wing Teals, a kind of duck, who had the odd habit of mating at Hero's Wetland over some weeks but then leaving to nest elsewhere. This pair came to Hero's every year to do this. One day I  watched the Geese mate and then  the Teals mated on the exact same spot, no more than a minute after the Geese had ended their mating. It seemed the Teals not only had a certain respect for the mating of Geese, but they chose to imitate the act, even down to the choice of spot!!! The Geese had created a congenial environment not only for themselves, but for other species too.

 
   Interspecies affection is an interesting subject. I suspect that there is much more interspecies
 interactions and awareness than human- animals know about. There is a tendency to  see "affection" among
 animals in human terms-- which may be a mistake. These two Blue Wing Teals return to mate in this pond every year-- they do not nest in it, but apparently fly further north-- but there is clearly a relation of the Teals to the Geese that has an "affectionate" dimension-- though the exact nature of this affection is hard for humans to understand-- it is a relationship that is subtle and profound enough to move the ducks to mate not only in the same wetland as the geese but on the same spot. There are many things in nature that simply are not noticed by humans because of our tendency to see things in human terms. Mating on the same spot is not something humans are likely to do-- but it appeared to have great meaning to the Teals.

     individual pairs of Geese have a strong bond to one another, but this bond is closely allied to another bond they share with the entire community of Geese. The shape of the community is clear by late summer and into the Autumn, when the young begin to learn to fly. Then one can see clearly that the separation of pairs and defense of the nesting area of each pair was a temporary phenomena, which was not about "territory" at all but rather about preserving the integrity of each nesting area within the larger context of the whole life of the Geese community.

       The transient nature of the nesting spaces created during the period of sitting on the eggs is shown when the eggs finally hatch. I was able to witness what happens after the egg hatching with many of the pairs. The first year there were seven active nests around the wetland, with more near the river, and some more in an adjacent floodplain forested area. The second year there were nine active nests around the wetland alone. The third year the numbers were similar. Of these I was able to see the first days of the goslings of numerous pairs. In each case, the parents lingered near the nest for the first day, while the little ones learned about the elements, experienced swimming for the first time, and how to eat. But within a short time, no more than a day or two, the parents abandoned the nest, and led the goslings first toward the woods and then toward to river. I was amazed that all the families I saw do this went in the same direction. They first headed toward the woods, where they might stay for another day or two, eating vegetation, and then they would go south toward the river.

 

 




The Geese of Hero's Wetland on The River
( details of Barn Swallow painting)

 


      Moreover, once the nest site was abandoned, arguments between pairs and other geese cease, for the most part, if not entirely. Within a month, as the birds go into their molting cycle, the Geese and gosling merge into a group again. In fact they always were a group, and not separate pairs in a "territory". The separations were merely apparent.

      Once the birds leave the nesting area with the goslings the flock could be found down at the river. The flock would fluctuate in size, some pairs wandering off for some time and then returning. Bad weather would usually bring the entire flock together, and they would all return to Hero's Wetland. The river could be very swift and dangerous for the Geese after a heavy rain. Hero's was a safe haven for them, as well as the place where they were all born.

       In any case, the period of learning, schooling and molting extends roughly from May until migration, which can be as late as December. The females with goslings tend to gather together on the river and share duties in watching the young. It amounts to a kind of baby sitting. The are occasional disagreements about proximity of the goslings of one family to the family of another pair. But these disagreements are mild. The community is composed of families that are together, but at the same time separate. As the young are born at slightly different times in May, they are of slightly different sizes. The littler ones interact with the larger ones and all the goslings get to know the adults, and learn which of the adults are friendly and which are not.  But in any case, the community holds together, despite differences between families, arguments and disputes. The young learn to be part of the group before they learn to fly. Learning to fly comes some months after hatching. The parents molt in late summer as the goslings are growing their wing feathers for flying.
   
        In other words, the community of Geese took one form during the mating and nesting period, where all the Geese together, adults and juveniles, created an interlocking, almost honey-comb like lattice of communal and cooperative relations. These relations composed the flock into a union that helped the whole community to withstand stresses and dangers. The form of the community changed after nesting, when the Geese all moved to the river, and there the community sought safety for molting and the education of the young. In July and August I would often see the Geese on the river in groups of many adults and babies. Some of the parents would be leading goslings of other parents, some would be leading their own, but all of them would be loosely together. They rested and preened on pebble strewn sandbars in the river. These months were an largely quiet and idyllic time for them, with warm nights and long days, with the young growing stronger each day and the whole flock gathering strength for migration and the coming winter.

        To summarize, the creation of discrete nesting spaces for each pair during the period of sitting on the eggs had only one object, and that was the hatching of the goslings. Once the goslings were hatched, the community reasserts its primacy and the discrete boundaries between each nesting pair largely dissolve. Their main concern is not the creation of "territories" but rather, community. The Geese immediately seek out other families and begin to gather together to help raise each others goslings. The nesting occurs in late March to April, the hatching in May, education of the young by the community goes on till the fall into the winter when the whole group will migrate. Upon the return the following early spring, these geese begin this cycle again.


 

 


Water into Air (detail)



THE YOUNG IN THE COMMUNITY
 
     The community of Geese was composed of mated pairs of various ages. There are the older adults who nest and younger pairs nesting for the first or second time. Then there were the yearlings, who had been goslings the previous year, and two year old juveniles, who had not yet found a mate. The yearlings in the group  experience a big change in their lives in their second spring, a year after their birth. They are used to being attended to by their parents. But as their parents begin a new nesting cycle, they begin pushing the young of last year away, not far away, but away enough that the parents can watch over their new nest. The yearling and two year olds are the "troublemakers" of the community. They are too old to be babied, and too young to know quite what to do. These young birds were the jokesters of the community and the source of most of the trouble and humor. In most cases when there was an altercation resulting in a bird being chased off, it was one of these juveniles that was being chased off. This happened so often that I began to think that much of what humans consider to be territorial dispute among Geese are actually something different. The yearling Geese never go away far. In fact, they tended to situate themselves right in the middle of all the nesting pairs, such that they were still never far from their parents. The yearling Geese formed a kind of sub-community within the larger community, and they created a kind of adolescent society. They got themselves into a lot of trouble, but in the process they appeared to be learning to be adults. A lot of the noisy altercations in a geese community are actually a form of play. The play appears to be about learning the limits of the community. The young Geese learn throughout the nesting period what it means to nest and what the parents will tolerate and not tolerate. In short, much of the behavior of the adults towards the yearlings was a kind of schooling.

       I was unable to tell if there was a sexual division among the juveniles or if both females and males were part the group. I suspect that both males and females were part of the this group. But I found it much harder to tell sex differences among the young than among the adults. I also could not distinguish clearly birds that could be yearlings and birds that might be two years old.

        Occasionally the young birds would fly off together, in a kind  of temporary migration formation, and return later. The nesting adults would all set up a clangor at their return and the young would be chased from nesting area to nesting area until they finally settled down in what seemed to be a neutral zone, where they could preen and nap.

    One of the most interesting things I saw the group of juveniles do was play a certain sort of game. Hero's Wetland has a lot of dead snags--- old trees, mostly sycamores and cottonwoods that have died because of the wet conditions. Some of these dead snags have been dead for some years and they tend to break off at points where one of the many woodpeckers who live around Hero's have built a nest. The cavity nest weakens the tree.  After a wind storm I would sometimes find the parts of these trees fallen. A few of these trees have broken off 30 feet or so above ground, leaving a very tall stump, that had a sort of platform at the top, where the trunk had broken off. The young geese liked to fly up to the top of the stump. Another young one would see this and a commotion would begin. Another young goose would fly up to the one standing atop the stump and try to displace the bird. It would succeed in some cases and in others fail. The Goose who held the top of the stump would then be the object of yet a third, forth or fifth goose, who would fly up and try to displace it. this would go on for quite some time, with many of the juveniles becoming involved. Sometimes two geese would try to displace the one at the top. I saw this game played four or five times over the years. I do not know if such games are unique to Hero's Geese or if similar or different games are played in other communities. But it appears this this game had some influence on the geese coming to build nests on top of some of the higher stumps. As the younger geese aged they turned what they learned at play into a means of increasing the safety
of their eggs. This is also what humans do, where games serve a similar meaning as a way of children learning about living in a larger world.




Canada geese at Play and Nesting
(detail of Yellow Warbler painting)




     It would be interesting to study distant but related communities of Geese. This is the area of Geese relationships that I understand the least. It was never clear to me why there were fewer geese after their return from migration, and what the two-year or three-year-olds do exactly when they form mating pairs. I suspected that the older geese at Hero's were aware of other, perhaps related, communities elsewhere along the river system, perhaps miles distant, and that some of the juvenile birds that left Hero's community joined these other communities. I surmise that there is some understanding of the community of Geese that live in surrounding areas. The juveniles would often go on what appeared to be flying excursions in the fall. Five geese would disappear for awhile and then return, for instance. Did they encounter other Geese communities on their travels?

     On occasion I wondered if some of the flocks of Geese that rested at hero's wetland but did not stay were communities that lived up the river somewhere or even further away. Do the young Geese that grew up at Hero's and left return for a visit?  But I am speculating. I don't know. Nor could I determine how many of the yearling Geese actually left the flock. it appeared that many stayed through the second year and some became parents at Hero's. I don't know how many. Nor could I determine if any Geese from other flocks joined the Hero's Geese. I suspect so. But I could not find out. Indeed, to determine this would require putting tags on the geese, radio collars or other such invasive practices. I have no interest in doing this sort of thing and think it of questionable ethics. The only real and ethical way to come to know Geese more thoroughly would be to live with them for many years. With time one gets to know individual Geese, as I got to know Hero's Geese and could sometimes recognize them. It would be possible to recognize all the member of the entire flock if one gave them that much time. But one would also have to come to know adjacent flocks of Geese that might live miles distant. To know how nearby communities of Geese interact with distant communities would be hard to study.
       



COMMUNICATIONS

    The complexity of the sounds Geese make is remarkable, and much more subtle than seems to be indicated in some of the literature about Geese. The sounds are often associated with body postures of various kinds, which seem to modulate their meaning. For instance, with the behavior called "head tossing" or "head flipping", the motion of flipping the head up and down is usually made by the male in the direction of the female of a pair sometimes with honks of various intensities. It seemed to signify mild irritation at another goose, not part of the pair, that is nearby. But this is not invariable. But the motion occurs so often especially prior to or during nesting, that it seemed to have much more meaning than I was able to divine. I saw them use the head flipping motion also when a group was about to take off. There were also particular modulations of the familiar honk which appeared to mean that flight as a group was soon to occur. Occasionally these organized movements weemed to be the result of one goose as leader, but other times, the decision appeared to be a group descision.

        Head tossing is one of many signals and sounds that Geese use to both communicate with their mates and with the larger community of Geese. A Geese colony is a very noisy place. To humans, hearing it for the first time, it seems chaotic and the Geese appear to be aggressive and "territorial". But this is a very superficial understanding of what is going on. The apparent cacophony of the Geese colony actually is the sound of complex communications being voiced from nesting pair to nesting pair, from adults to juveniles, and from Geese who might not be part of the local community who have wandered in.

     I have seen and heard a gander on the pond call out to a group of ten or so geese flying hundreds of feet above the pond, and as a result of the call the flying geese changed direction. It is also clear, watching Geese who are migrating, that sounds that indicate direction changes are a regular feature of their long distance flights. The lead Geese call out changes to the Geese that fly behind them.

       This ability to use sound to indicate direction can be quite complex. For instance. In the Autumn, after the young had all attained the ability to fly, the entire flock of some 90 birds, was dabbling about the river on a warm day in two groups.  One of the groups was up river and the other down river a few thousand feet from the other group. A fisherman approached from up river. I was standing between the two groups, watching them. Fisherman, intent upon the catching and killing of fish, often neglect to respect the rights of birds to their places. This fisherman was approaching the group of Geese up river. The gander, I believe the gander from the pair I called Hero's Geese, seeing the fisherman coming, swam down river towards the second group, who was watched over by the 'wife' of the gander. As he called out to her he began herding the flock that was with him, who were composed of mostly young birds and a some pairs of adults.

      The female, his mate,  in control of the second group down river, heard  her husband's honks, and began gathering her own group into closer proximity to each other, just as her husband was doing. Both groups understood by the vocalizations, honks and hinks, that it was time to not just line up to begin flying, but to face up river to do so. Hero's female then  began calling out, telling the first flock it was time to fly. Half of the flock flew into the air and over a nearby bridge at the same time. The male, who had gathered the rest of the Geese in the same area, took off with his group in an identical manner and direction. it was all done in a matter of a few minutes. The Geese all flew over the head of the offending fisherman  and landed up steam in a place they thought safer.

      What amazed me about this event was that the pair of Hero's Geese organized this flight almost entirely by using a series of calls, honks and hinks. The sounds used were very subtle and were composed of directions not just to the two groups of Geese but also to each other. The two Geese communicated not only the need to fly to escape the fisherman, but where they were to begin their flight, when and in what direction. They organized the two groups of an entire flock into a take off position and all the geese facing the same direction, and then accomplished the take off in a period of probably less than two minutes.

        This is no small accomplishment, given that 90 birds, most of them very young, had to be told where to go, what direction to face and when to fly. In order to accomplish this the seemingly simple sounds of the geese had to express intention and purpose and involved planning for an entire group, organizing where to move, what direction to face and when to fly. This is a very complex set of directions and intentions, and certainly as complex as anything humans do, in terms of requiring foresight, managing groups, as well as reasoning and planning an event in the near future that will help the group as a whole. Indeed, it is hard to imagine that two adult humans could organize 90 children and young adults to move in a stated direction and do it in less than tow minutes. Moreover, all this was done without what humans call language, or rather, it was done with a kind of  non-linguistic language that is different in kind from anything humans call language, but in no way "lesser" than what humans call language.

       The mistake that humans typically make in regard to non-human communication is that human language is always compared to non human sounds. It is always humans, with their human centered concerns that do the comparing. No surprise that the conclusion is always that human language is superior to anything in nature. But this is a speciesist fallacy. One can tell nothing about the sounds of birds or animals without first knowing the context of their lives and actions. It is impossible to know or say anything realistic and accurate about non-human sounds without first completely immersing oneself in the lives of the animals or birds one would like to understand. This is not easy to do, and above all requires huge amounts of time. If I had not spent three years closely watching the flock at Hero's I would not have been able to perceive the intelligence and insight of their behavior on the river relative to the threat of the fisherman. This is not to say that I now understand everything Geese are saying in their complex interactions. Hardly. I understand only fragments of their speech and how they live in the world. But I discovered that these are not only marvelous birds, but that their society is rich and complex and as full of intrinsic value and worth as the lives of human beings. But they are very different than human beings and this difference demands our respect. The abuse that humans deal out towards Geese and most of the other kinds of beings on earth is evidence, not just of the limited and self centered nature of human language, but of the myopic lack of respect and insensitive unwillingness to listen to the concerns and lives of other kinds of beings. As the poet Pablo Neruda wisely asked, "how is the translation of their languages arranged with the birds". Indeed, birds do not appear to need translations of what they say. Birds of different kinds appear to understand each other well enough. far better, in many ways, than human-animals who speak the same language often understand  each other. It makes one wonder.

  
       

       

 

 

   

 

Copyright 2002 Mark Koslow. All Rights Reserved.