Resident Geese


That soft puff of air comes from the west, not the east. So whyare the geese headed east? And why walking along on the ground, not up in the air flying? Geese are supposed to take off into the wind, then fly, not walk. So why?

It's only the latest puzzle about these Canadas during the nearly two months since four of them popped their shells next door at Walter Buck's place. Almost right away the two parents, sleek and watchful, began herding their tiny hairy gaggle through some quarter-mile of field and woods to my place. Because the babies had no feathers, they couldn't fly. All six walked -- father leading, mother following, or maybe the other way around. With Canada geese, you can't tell.

What was puzzling was, the six-some walked almost every day. They straggled along through heavy tufts of last summer's clover, circled trees, forded a trickle of a stream, climbed a smooth dam embankment, then plopped -- plop-plop, plop-plop, plop-plop -- into my pond. It amazed us they walked every morning. More amazing still, they walked back every evening.

Walter understood why they came back: He fed them. What he couldn't understand -- and suggested pointedly he didn't approve -- was that they came to my pond at all. I suggested just as pointedly that the elder geese, long noted for high moral standards, found the air on my side of the woods more salubrious for wholesome raising of the young. Walter sniffed. He said he had noted no morals to speak of over here, then changed the subject.

What had really been unfolding, apparently, was confirmation of stories in the paper about the rising number of Canada geese which have taken to settling more or less permanently in rural Maryland. Traditionally, summer in Canada had been all very well so long as its great cool fastnesses escaped the developers, so long as there were private places to swim, to eat, to breed and to brood, to gather strength for the long hazardous air journey each fall down the eastern flyway, seeking the sun. That blessed state belongs to the past.

Today's Canada is astir with eager business developments, good presumably for making money, threatening for geese and ducks alike. Drained swamps, felled forests, cemented acres; where's a poor goose to lay her eggs in peace? In the Land of Pleasant Living, that's where. Besides, even in good times, it always had been an exhausting week or so, winging it from there to here and, only a few months later, here to there yet again. Maryland, gently temperate all year, must look ever more seductive to a harried goose.

Quite rational, yes. But why is that little family of geese out there walking instead of flying? Why walking east instead of flying into the tiny puff of wind from the west? Why?

Up a round grassy hill they march, one foot trudging after the other. The two plump parents hold the front, long black necks swiveling, scouting the fox den at the foot of the old poplar. By now the four youngsters are no longer clumsy babies. They are pTC lithe, muscular creatures, each gray-feathered out, each bearing the trademark silvery diagonal across flat, dusty cheek. Trudging along behind, they are distinguishable from mother and father only by their leaner, more sinewy silhouette.

Still, could they fly or couldn't they? If so, why this seemingly pointless waddle to nowhere?

Abruptly, two-thirds up the hill, the parental pair halts. They pivot 180 degrees, at last facing the west. Up go the huge shadowy wings, easily five feet tip to tip. Now they are breasting the wind properly for takeoff. The great wings flap powerfully, lifting two heavy bodies an inch or two off the rough hill. Snake-like, two gleaming necks shoot out before them, delicately balanced.

Two geese airborne: What about the four young? Could they do it, or not?

They seem unsure themselves. Unlike the smooth demonstration takeoff a moment earlier, all four grope doubtfully at the air. Wings flap, to be sure, but flap in desperate confusion. Two goslings collide, four wings entangle. A third somehow gets off the ground, running downhill to make airspeed. The fourth hops, crow-like, until its own flailing wings catch the wind, lifting it up. The entangled two, thus instructed, shake themselves loose, then make a running start downhill, finally scrambling aloft into the wind, the saving little wind from the west.

A ragged, wavering flight they make, no neatly artistic V as in the commercials. Not even the mature two feel confident enough to exchange a sociable honk. In flustered silence they fly maybe 20 yards down the hill. There, amid wing-flapping madder still, all six pitch down with heavy splashes -- 1! 2! (pause) 3! 4! 5! 6! -- upon the green algae accumulated on my pond below.

Of long swooping goose grace, there isn't much. Of deft, sure flying technique, none at all. That doesn't matter. What matters is, four young Canadas have just struggled into the air for what is surely a very early flight, maybe the actual first.

They have used a running downhill start, just as their mother and father arranged for them. Once safely afloat on the streaky water, they half-flew, half-paddled about in an interlinked series of happy, glistening circles. Orville Wright, freshly triumphant at Kitty Hawk, would have understood instantly.

I asked Walter if, like salmon, the geese might come back next spring to their birthplace. Walter thought no, they'd soon leave for good. Maybe so, but next spring we'll both keep an eye on the grassy hill.

Bradford Jacobs is the retired editor of The Evening Sun editorial pages.

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