The young goose dozing in the sun is one of nature's marvels. He doesn't look it. As a matter of fact, he looks pretty silly perched there on one leg in an inch of water near the muddy edge of the pond. His other leg is hidden under a wing, and his long neck is curled so that it lies snugly back between his shoulders. With the sun lighting his plumage, he looks more like a soft, feathery bolster than like a bird. If he were the only goose you'd ever seen, you might wonder how he could fly.
Yet just a few minutes ago he was aloft, sailing over the marsh on broad, powerful wings that measure six feet from tip to tip. He was bringing up the rear of a loose formation of geese that had just spent the early hours of the morning in a cornfield. It's November, and at this time of year corn is the staple of his diet. Since geese in flight are usually arranged by family and age, with an older goose in the lead, our goose is probably a youngster. The senior, more dignified birds glided in on fixed wings, but this one is still full of play; he tilted his wings to let the air out and came pinwheeling and pigeon-winging down, honking all the way. He looked and sounded as if he had suddenly forgotten how to fly and simultaneously developed a terrible fear of the water. He splashed down rump first in a goose version of a cannonball.
I am only guessing that he is a gander. Even with binoculars, it's impossible to say for sure. Ganders are usually a little larger, but both sexes have identical markings. This goose we have adopted probably weighs about eight pounds. He looks heavier and bulkier, but we have to remember that he is wearing a parka. The plumage of his breast and back is an intricacy of black, gray and white. His most distinctive features are the black stocking that passes over his head and neck and the white cheek patches that meet under his chin. Those white patches, like an aviator's scarf, give him a dashing air of derring-do.
He is a Canada goose. Subspecifically, he is an Atlantic Canada goose, Branta candensis canadensis. There are 10 other subspecies, ranging in size from the giant to the crackling, but the Atlantic is the most common goose in the Eastern Flyway. He hails from the far nothern pothole country in the region of Canada's James Bay. The large egg from which he was hatched was one of a clutch that probably numbered from five to eight, and his nest was tufted with down that his mother plucked from her breast. After four weeks in the egg, he emerged fluffy, yellowish, hungry. As soon as he was dry, he went abroad to search for his own food, and within weeks, escorted by both parents, he was swimming miles along the waterways to feed, a staunch paddler who floated high as a cork.
He was probably born in May, and he couldn't fly for the first nine or 10 weeks of his life. His parents too were flightless at this time, undergoing their annual molt. By September, our gander had not only grown to look like his parents but he could match them wingbeat for wingbeat, and he followed them on the long flight from James Bay to Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.
From his position back in the formation, he could make out certain landmarks below him -- the shape of a coastline, the configuration of a river. The older geese probably remembered these from previous migrations, though scientists are not sure to what extent migrating birds rely on memory. With or without landmarks, the know how to hold a true course, and they evidently have some kind of inner barometer, for they move south in stages, often on the leading edge of a high pressure system. Their speed aloft is about 40 miles an hour, 60 with a tailwind, and their altitude is usually lower than 2,000 feet, though pilots have seen them miles high. After each stage of the journey, the pause for a few days to feed and replenish their strength -- understandably, for some of the stages are heroic. Formations of Canada geese have flown as far as 500 miles non-stop, though a typical flight migration would probably be nearer 100 miles.
So our goose, who looks so unpromising as he snoozes there, already knows the way from Canada to the Eastern Shore. He'll make the journey several times in each direction before being entrusted with the lead position in the formation. By the age of 3 he will have mated, nested and reared his own brood, and he'll be ready for responsiblities. For the moment, however, he is still dependent on his parents, who have mated for life. His father had to drive off suitors to win his mother, though the final choice rested with her and the pact was not sealed until she deigned to follow him in flight. Now they are inseparable, but they will remate if either is killed. Hunters who have downed geese have often seen, with dismay, the bereaved mate circle and call to the victim.
Uh-whongk, uh-whongk -- that's how ornithologists spell out the deep, resounding, classic call of the gander. The higher-pitched call of the goose is spelled uh-wha, uh-wha. (Researchers have identified 10 different and distinctive goose utterances.) Spend a day at Blackwater, where in November as many as 60,000 geese are in residence, and you'll hear honking, gabbling, squawking, cackling, hissing, snoring, clucking, scolding, yawping and hooting. Much of it is probably like human utterance, just noise, but at the very least a goose can single out the voices of members of its own family. At Blackwater it's not unusual to see a long goose flying over the great congregations, calling and listening for a reply.
Our sleepy gander, with his family nearby, is very much at ease here. Blackwater is his Miami Beach, as far south as he'll go this winter. He knows he's safe on the refuge, though how he distinguishes between a man with a gun and a man with a camera is something of a puzzle. He'll spend most days just as he's spent this one, feeding and loafing. From his parents he'll learn the location of the best fields and the hunters' blinds, and he'll remember them. Hunting guides on the Eastern Shore will tell you that a goose lured once to a blind will never return. The best guides, respecting the intelligence of the birds, don't like to shoot into a formation unless they think they can bring most of them down -- they don't want word to get back to the rest of the flock. Even when the geese have been fooled and they're coming into a blind, the least sound or movement can alert them to danger. They have extraordinary powers of sight and hearing. Imagine the difference between watching a World Series game on a small black-and-white television with poor reception and actually being present in the stadium -- imagine that, and you have some conception of how much dimmer and feebler is our own sensory experience than that of the goose.
Before the winter this young gander will get as fat as he can so that he can sit out the coldest, bitterest days. He can, if necessary, go for weeks without food. The position he's in now, with all his extremities tucked away, helpe him conserve body heat and energy. He may not stay at Blackwater -- with so many birds at the refuge, pickings get slimmer and slimmer, and the geese disperse all over the Eastern Shore after the hunting season.
Come spring, he'll feed ravenously on the first green shoots. Unlike corn and other grains -- the "hot food" he stored up as fat for the winter -- the tender clover and fescue is "cold food," and it affects his metabolism very differently. He is more active and restless, and several glands have begun to act up. He becomes territorial and aggressive, nipping at other ganders, perhaps contending with them for the favors of a young goose. Branta candensis canadensis, in short, behaves in the spring very much like Homo sapiens.
His spring comes a little earlier than our own. Scientists have observed that the spring migration follows the isotherm of 35 degrees Fahrenheit (an isotherm is a line of a weather map linking points having the same temperature). When the days grow a little longer and warmer, when the air has a softer texture and richer fragrance, the time is not far off when our gander will take flight. Some evening when the sky is clear and a full moon is just rising, he will join the other geese in a slow, gabbling procession to the clear patch of ground at the pond's edge. There he will mill about with the others until suddenly the leaders, with a few quick steps, springs into the wind. With a great clamor all the geese will follow, rising aloft, taking deep strokes as they ascend, their wings making a powerful, trembling, silken sound.
Does our gander know he is headed home? I like to imagine that he does, and that he has been expecting and desiring this journey. I like to think, as the scientists do, that his migration answers a deep and ancient longing. The scientists have a wonderful theory -- two wonderful theories, actually, the northern ancestral home theory and the southern ancestral home theory. The northern theory supposes that the geese were driven south by the Quaternary glaciations, but as the ages passed and the ice cap retreated, the birds made an annual return to their place of origin. The southern theory holds that all avian life was once confined to the southern hemisphere, but given the tendency of birds to overpopulate, they sought northern breeding grounds as the glaciers melted; the southern journey was the flight homeward.
Either theory will serve out purpose, which is to marvel at the geese as they pass overhead. We can imagine that they are driving the winter before them --uh-whongk, uh-whongk, they call, and they'll keep honking until they have chased winter all the way back to the Pole. We can think of the shape of their formation that exhilarating V, as the symbol of flight itself. We can imagine the springtime green spreading north over the globe along the isotherm as if it were a wave which our gander is riding for the sheer and mighty joy of it. As the geese part the air above us, we hear from on high the trumpets of spring.