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Bob Henke column: A tough year for Canada geese

Bob Henke column: A tough year for Canada geese


This has been a weird year.

I am not referring to the routine and recurring weird. Things like a major progressive organization declaring that drinking milk makes you racist. While you can never predict the substance of this sort of epistemological flatulence, you can be reasonably sure of the form. It will occur on a regular schedule — corresponding to the organization’s fiscal year — and will vary little in accuracy or hyperbole level over the decades.

Instead, what addresses itself to me on a daily basis, is a universe just slightly out of synch. I typically start wearing terrycloth shorts and a T-shirt as a uniform for all my outdoor activities beginning about the time the hen turkeys begin to incubate. By the Fourth of July, my legs are typically showing some color — not the bark brown of my farmer’s tan upstairs, because I am generally either sitting on the tractor or standing up, but at least noticeable. A good tan on the legs comes to one who has the leisure time to lie down in the sun.

Mine was semi-great the spring of my knee operation. It would have been great because all I could do outdoors was lie around in the sun but the knee brace left a strange pink semi-circle on my right leg, which looked ridiculous right through mid-winter. The point is, as was rather rudely pointed out by a number of friends, my legs remain quite devoid of tan even at this late date in summer. I did some tanning on the holiday, on the tractor for four hours, plowing. Plowing, on the Fourth of July, and at that I was pulling through some standing water in one wet hole.

I have no idea what I might be able to plant at this late date but it seems wrong to have half the field growing weeds all summer. I guess the old saying, “A dry year will scare you to death, but a wet one will actually starve you,” is pretty accurate. Until the last week or so, the bees have eaten more honey than they made, there is no sweet corn even close, and the snapping turtles did not start laying eggs until almost a full month late.

The delays caused by a wet year are more important to some types of wildlife than others and sometimes in surprising ways.

For many of the nesting pairs of Canada geese, this spring was disastrous. A few that were on high elevations — the top of a beaver lodge, for example — managed to survive the incredibly high water that has persisted right up to today. Those pairs that began nesting in more traditional locations most often found their nests washed away and the eggs drowned.

When a catastrophe occurs, particularly early in the incubation cycle, Canada geese and in fact most waterfowl will regroup, build another nest, and begin a second clutch of eggs, albeit typically with fewer eggs and a lower hatching percentage than a first nest. Most waterfowl are quite successful raising these renested families but the Canada geese face a peculiar challenge.

Canada geese are attentive parents. Both the male and female guard the nest and the goslings. When the babies leave the nest, the parents lead them to water and immediately form a flotilla line, usually with the goose at the front, the babies following in a line, and the gander forming a rear guard. This sort of watchfulness persists for 10 to 12 weeks and ends somewhat abruptly.

Adult Canada geese undergo a full molt while at their summer breeding areas. This means, in addition to routine replacement of worn or missing feathers, they systematically shed the large primary flight feathers and regrow fresh ones for the fall migration. The result is, from late June to late July, adult Canada geese are rendered flightless until their new feathers grow in. They plan well for this, bringing their broods to a place where there is water and grazing within 100 feet of each other so everything in life can be accomplished by either walking or swimming.

At the same time, the flight feathers of the goslings are beginning to erupt and, in a perfect world, both groups will be ready to take to the air at roughly the same time, sometime in August. At this time, the adults seem to take more interest in getting airborne again than in a bunch of large unruly goslings. Essentially abandoned, various broods will group together forming what is called a “Gang brood.” These gang broods may contain 20 to 100 youngsters, often under the leadership of a couple yearling or 2-year-old geese, and they all begin to fly, strengthening for the migration together.

The late broods do not fare well in this scenario. True to form, mom and dad will fly off as soon as they are able, leaving their still-fuzzy goslings to fend for themselves. These babies join the gang broods but when these companions also take flight, these late brood goslings are left to their own devices.

Predation can take a toll on these gang brood stragglers. Often an aerial predator like an eagle will key in on one of these groups and keep at it relentlessly until they are all gone. Sometimes, however, they do quite well and several weeks after the others begin to fly strongly as well. Depending on how far behind they might be, their parents and compatriots may have already begun drifting south on their migration route.

This can be good news or bad news because it is generally agreed that while migration is an instinct, the actual routes are learned behavior gained by following older adults the first time. With no one to follow, these geese tend to simply fly around in the same area and may, if conditions permit it, not migrate at all the first year. At best, they trend generally south, staying anywhere they can find open water. This can lead to great mortality if a sudden freeze denies them access.

On the other hand, nature is always looking for an edge and making the best of a bad situation. Many times these late youngsters are ready to fly just as some of the migrants from further north begin passing through. Not only will the late goslings follow these birds south, they will also follow them back north in the spring, sometimes winding up several hundred miles from where they were hatched and insuring good genetic mixing throughout the species.

Now if I could just figure out the silver lining for my pale legs and muddy fields. ...

Bob Henke writes a weekly outdoors column for The Post-Star.


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