With the urgency of a ticking clock, the Canada geese have risen from summer nesting grounds along the shores of Hudson Bay, 800 miles north of here, and, in V after V, are moving south at 40 mph as high as 9,000 feet overhead, outriders of winter's onrushing storms.
Twice a year, millions of birds move across the Continent along four major flyways. They winter in temperate southern climes, nest in the remote north, then return in autumn with their offspring, as unerring a cycle as any in the animal kingdom.
Of them all, the Canada goose occupies a special niche. Too ponderous for grace, too strong to seem vulnerable, too raucous for sympathy, the bird nonetheless stirs the imagination. A V of honkers overhead powerfully evokes the changing seasons.
So accurate is their sense of direction that a pair of geese (they mate for life) returns to the same nesting site year after year, despite the uncertainties of a round-trip migration of perhaps 2,000 miles. The new nest may be no more than 50 feet from the previous site.
"From banding, we can predict almost exactly where a pair will nest after wintering in the south," said John Wetzel, a migratory bird expert for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
In the Upper Midwest, there are few finer places to watch the migration spectacle than here on 21,000 acres of marsh and prairie set aside as a federal and state wildlife refuge, 60 miles northwest of Milwaukee. Founded in 1941 when North America's waterfowl seemed headed for extinction because of indiscriminate hunting, Horicon Marsh has become a major migratory stopover for replenished populations of geese and ducks.
Now, 800,000 Canada geese, forming three distinct populations that travel and nest together, use the Mississippi-Valley flyway. One tribe, known as the Mississippi Valley Population (MVP) and made up of 300,000 Branta canadensis, stops by here.
A few Vs arrived just before the Sept. 22 autumnal equinox. Now, more than 80,000 geese are here. On the ground, the birds are surprisingly difficult to see because of their markings.
The only spot of color in this sere flatland of meadows, fields and bogs comes from milkweed plants, whose seedpods have split open, spilling white silken tufts everywhere. Plump gray goose bodies blend with grays of autumn earth and dying vegetation. Long black necks imitate stands of milkweed; the distinctive white throat-blazes resemble milkweed silk.
During the day, the sky is alive with chains of honking birds. Like most commuters, Canada geese have set ways. They spend the night safely on Horicon's canals and streams, and early each morning fly off in search of food. Connoisseurs, they prefer corn, wheat and soybean. At sunset, they return to their watery roosts, but damage to surrounding farms can be high.
Gorging to regain lost weight, geese can consume half a pound of grain a day. These days, with so many birds in residence, the 24-hour consumption for 80,000 geese can total 20 tons.
The government has paid farmers thousands of dollars in crop-damage reparations over the years. But farmers hereabouts don't think much of geese. "Sky carp" is about the kindest epithet they use.
For the birds, the reckoning comes elsewhere -- from hunters. A 14-state board, the Mississippi Flyway Council, recommends "harvest" goals to states along the migration route. The number is established after flock surveys by air and ground. In the early 1970s, the MVP tribe grew to more than 500,000. Since then, heavy harvest quotas, outbreaks of avian cholera and other diseases, have reduced the tribe to about 300,000.
The 1984 flyway harvest is 64,000 geese, enforced by seasonal restrictions and permit. The drake's share goes to Illinois (27,000) and Wisconsin (25,000); the other states divide the remainder. Their portion is small because the birds have learned that it simply isn't worth the trip to ancestral wintering areas in Louisiana and Mississippi. Over-hunting by southern gunners and abundant food supplies in the northern states have wrought this change. Game experts have tried without success to reverse it.
Geese were trapped, trucked south to rich cropland and released. They hung around a few days, formed up in Vs and took off -- heading north to food and safety.
Cantankerous? Yes. Noisy? Yes. Aggressive? Yes.
"If a goose survives that first hunting season," Wetzel said, "it will live to be very old -- and very smart."
Dottie Thompson, assistant Horicon manager for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said: "The Canada goose is a very social bird. You always see them in families. There is something about the old honker that is beautiful to watch."