Love and Order in a Goose's Life
When I hear people talk about Canada Geese, the conversation usually revolves around how much of a pest they are. How they poop all over the golf course, hiss at passer-byes and annoy the human population with their presence. Others talk about waiting in a blind along a marshy shore in the early morning and then knocking them out of the sky with the shot of a 12 gauge shotgun.
To me, there is a much different perspective. You see, I grew up with Canada Geese. They weren't wild, but in fact they were pretty tame and some were what we called "imprinted." Simply put, they had not grown up with their biological parents...they had grown up with humans - hatched under a heat lamp in a cardboard box and seeing humans right after they pecked their way of of the egg. Wet, disorientated and turning their heads sidewards so as to look at us with one eye; they'd remember those smiling and laughing human faces for the rest of their lives. We were family.
After a few minutes under the heat lamp, those scrawny little goslings were wobbling around the inside of the box. Stepping in the bowl we had filled with water and peeping with excitement. Their down had become a yellowish-green fluff of softness and we couldn't wait to hold them.
There were three total that had survived and hatched. And even though they looked very similar, but you could see differences in them...at least I could. With time, we also noticed they each had distinct personalities too.
As the goslings grew, we took them out on short adventures of exploration. The three waddling behind us as we trekked through the front yard to a sunny spot where the grass was rich and green. On those summer days I'd stretch out on the soft grass, closing my eyes and letting the goslings climb up onto my chest and pull on my hair. Usually, two would sleep on my chest area while another would be intent on playing with my hair, pulling away, yanking and then coughing when it swallowed a strand. I'd always cover my eyes just to make sure my eyelashes didn't become a target! And even at that young age, I noticed how one gosling was always a sentry. Always watching, always turning it's head sideways and looking with one eye to the sky above for danger. The other two geese would have their heads facing their tail feathers with beaks tucked into their folded wings...making subtle chirps and letting me know they were calm and comfortable. And occasionally, those tail feathers would lift in the air rapidly and I'd feel an all too familiar warmth soaking through my shirt. When the sentry saw something high above or saw someone approaching at ground level, it would let out a squawk and immediately the other two geese were awake, necks stretched upward and watching.
After a few weeks the down started to disappear and feathers began to show. We'd fill up a circular, plastic wading pond with cold spring water and the goslings would immediately hop in. They'd swim around for awhile and peck at things in the bottom of the pool, trying to grab at the cartoon illustrations molded into the hard plastic. And like a large version of a songbird in a birdbath, they'd flap their wings and splash the water everywhere...submerging and coming up out of the water squawking in delight. Sometimes, they would swim under the water like a seal. Darting just under the surface, then jumping up out of the pool and running around in circles, flapping their small wings and then returning to the pool to repeat it all over again. It was hilarious to watch and I loved to see their happiness.
Since these geese were considered pets, my dad didn't want them flying away...even if they were family. So, sadly, one Saturday morning we trimmed all the primary feathers on each goose, making it impossible for them to fly and essentially grounding them. In so many ways this was heartbreaking. I understood why he felt this was necessary, yet at the same time I hated to see their gift being taken away as a pile of gray feathers on the ground.
As summer turned to fall we'd continue with our explorations together, many times walking out to a nearby field where we'd flatten a patch of tall, dry grass and make a small recessed island in a field of tan. I loved those days. Their scrawny gosling bodies had grown into large geese with gray feathers and long black necks. There was a distinguishing white patch behind each eye and their squawks were replaced by loud, proud honks. And on those fall days we'd watch the rows upon rows of migrating Canada Geese flying overhead on their way south. The "V" formations following one after another like a squadron of B-17s on a bombing run in France. Many times the geese high above us would honk as they communicated with their group and as the sound traveled down to earth, our three geese would honk back at them. You could hear the excitement in the voices of our geese. They knew that could be them up there, high above the ground with the endless sky ahead to infinity.
I remember at some point, my dad decided he wanted to raise more geese. So he bought a gander and brought him home to breed with our three females. This poor old gander walked with a limp, in fact, half of his right foot was missing. We called him "Limpy" and found out from his previous owner that his foot had been mauled by a dog. A dog that had already pierced the neck of Limpy's mate, shaking her limp body as her wings flapped helplessly. When Limpy came charging; hissing with his head down and wings in the air, the dog dropped the dying bird and took to attacking her mate. Before the dog had a chance to take out his wrath on Limpy, the farmer came running and chased off the animal. As Limpy stood looking down at his mate he could hear the difficulty she was having in breathing...the air gurgling with blood until she slowly stopped trying. There are things I will always remember in life and this story is one of them. But, it didn't stop there. You see, Limpy would never mate with our three geese. He'd hiss at them when they came close and never ever showed affection or interest. I took it as though he'd lost his love and from what I had heard, Canada Geese mate for life...this definitely held true with this old bird.
My dad was a medical illustrator and worked at the County General Hospital in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. And one of the memories I have that will always make me smile is that of the office parties which my parents would throw during the summertime. The picnic tables would be covered with nice table cloths, soda, beer and booze would be arranged and my dad would cook hamburgers, barbecued chicken and sweet corn for his co-workers from Milwaukee. These were heart surgeons and radiologists, oncologists and others, who knew my dad because of his illustrations. There'd be lots of kids to play with and we'd show them around the nearby ponds, catching snakes, turtles and frogs to their delight. These were city folk and we were country kids. But, the highlight of the afternoon was when my mom would let our geese out of their pen and they'd come honking down the hill to join the party. From then on, they'd be mingling with the guests, pulling on their shoestrings and grabbing anything that fell off of a paper plate.
Eventually, my dads goal to raise more geese resulted in him giving up on Limpy and adding two more geese to our flock. This was a true "mated pair" which had produced lots of goslings in the past, so it would be almost a sure thing that we'd have some little yellow fur balls soon. But, one morning we awoke to only 4 geese, our three girls and Limpy. the mated pair was gone. All we could surmise was that they had found a way to escape under the chicken wire fence which lined the 3 acre revene and made it to freedom or to death on the other side.
Saturday mornings were usually always reserved for work around the house. I was old enough to help my dad outside, while my little brother and sister would help their mom clean and vacuum the house. On this particular morning, my dad had wanted my help in repairing the chicken wire fence which surrounded the pond. It had been about 2 weeks since we had lost our mated pair and his goal was to perform any patchwork necessary to eliminate others from escaping. As we walked deep into the woods on the other side of the pond, I noticed two gray shapes ahead. At first I thought they were the carcasses of our two missing geese, then as I got closer, I noticed one was standing and other was lying down. It was the mated pair and they were alive! Two weeks earlier they had tried to escape, but the goose had gotten her foot caught in part of the chicken wire fencing. Both birds were emaciated and dehydrated. I feel without a doubt that the gander would have stayed with his mate until the bitter end; dying a slow death by dehydration and starvation. He wouldn't leave her no matter what and when we tried to free his mate, he used whatever strength he had left to defend her, pecking at us and flapping his wings. Thankfully, she was fine once released from the fencing and after a few days they were back to normal. Again, I had seen the devotion of Canada Geese to their mates. As humans we consider ourselves to be "above" the rest of God's creatures but do we stay with our mate for life?
There are times now when I hear two lone geese flying overhead. It is usually late in the day, just before dusk when the western sky is orange with color. Their honking is in strange contrast to the drone of traffic on a nearby highway. Horns blaring, noisy exhaust pipes, ambulance sirens. To my ears it is a reminder of my childhood, but at the same time a call from an earth in desperation...if only we were listening.