Of Geese And Men

by Wayne Heinze

Children and geese in the parkIt was a late October day in the early 1970’s, and I was crouched on a shale bench along the upper Rockaway River. I had been fishing less than a quarter mile below the big reservoir, and the river here was really a creek, flowing slowly in this dry autumn. Fallen leaves floating in the small pools, occasionally fouled my lure. I am always reminded of the randomness of things at such times. I doubt if I had deliberately cast my spinner at the flotsam, I could have snagged a higher percentage. And so it always seems. But often enough the gold bladed eighth ounce Rooster Tail settled into the pool and was intercepted on it’s return to my rod tip by a fat yellow perch. The yellows, coppers and muted green of the perch seemed applied from the same palette that painted the stream side foliage and the surrounding woods.

The day had advanced, it was nearly noon, and the chill of the fall morning was replaced by the warmth of an autumn sun blazing down through the trees from a bluebird sky. I lay a hand on the flat rock now bathed in sunlight, and felt the warmth it now held. I removed my sweatshirt and sat back against a bank side willow and a used it as a makeshift pillow and fell asleep. I have rarely done that on a single day adventure, and can recall only two other times in sixty years. Once taking shelter on the porch of an abandoned cabin during a rainstorm while fishing the Eno River near Durham, North Carolina. And once on the deck of a boat on the way to Manasquan Ridge, twenty miles offshore on a bluefish trip. And here on this singular day on the Rockaway River.

I awoke after a short nap, to the loud honking of Canadian geese passing overhead. An enormous, classic V formation of birds, already headed south from their summer breeding grounds in the freshwater marshes of Canada. Headed south along with many other species, along the Atlantic flyway. I have never opened my eyes to such a magnificent sight. Many in that day, in that place, would have felt the same. Today, far fewer would. The magnificent wild geese still exist, and in fact are still passing over my house in January this year on their journey south, delayed, confused or adapting to the record warmth along the east coast so far this winter. But, their numbers have been augmented by those who come, and like the travelers in the Dire Straights tune Telegraph Road, “never went further … never went back.” Canadian geese, the regal, iconic, wild symbol of nature, have become in many areas, a pest. It is listed on the signs and business cards of exterminators, along great with rats, and cockroaches. And futile commercial enterprises have been spawned that seek to “chase” the resident geese with everything from specially trained dogs to mechanized swans, noise cannons, and sundry statuaries, mock-ups and effigies. It is not working, and the geese that are here to stay are the bane of golf courses, ballfields, suburban lawns and waterside dwellings. Agronomists, groundskeepers, lawn services and dock and deck purveyors are vexed, as well as the Jone’s and those wishing to keep up with them.

How did we get here? Well, part of it is cultural I think. In Europe, especially the UK, geese were more highly thought of as a food source than they are here. Sort of like giant Cornish hens. When Scrooge awoke Christmas morning and had his epiphany, he sent the neighborhood urchin to the butcher to fetch a turkey for the Cratchit’s, because it was a relatively rare and expensive bird. The Cratchits, poor as they might have been, had already begun to feast on their holiday bird, a goose. And in the Old World they wrote of the golden goose or the goose that laid the golden egg, and even Mother Goose. Many thought it a symbol of something wild and untamable, with even religious connotations in some cases.

But in the USA it was largely a game bird, and ultimately a “sporting bird.” That onerous “sport” was a goose shoot, where a tethered goose was shot by marksmen. That frankly barbaric but quite widespread activity was finally banned by the federal government in the 1930’s. But the raising of geese for this activity had become a cottage industry, and with little market incentive for geese as a food stuff here, most birds were released into the wild.

Were but that was a happy ending, but it was anything but. By the time of the ban, generations of geese had been raised in captivity, and many of their natural instincts were muted. Chief amongst these was the instinct to migrate. Many of the geese, used to life in more or less one place, had little trouble adapting to their new locales, and eventually thrived. It is not clear that the released geese who did migrate, might not have mated with pure wild geese, but the randomness of the natural world suggests they did. Remember my lure snagging the floating leaves? And perhaps this genetic intermix produced at some point a mixed breed goose that plumbed it’s genetic memory, reached Central Park in Manhattan and stayed. And Central Park wasn’t the only area that must have looked like a welcome mat to a wild creature, seeking only the best for themselves and their progeny. It was not in a conscious thought, but it was in there, somewhere under the feathers.

And especially along the Atlantic flyway, development that has wreaked havoc in terms of habitat destruction for many creatures, has created goose Shangri-La. Scattered farms, parklands and small reservoirs, which are really what a lot of lakes here are. Baseball, softball, soccer, football, lacrosse, and Frisbee fields. Golf courses and lawns, as artificial landscapes as ever conceived, are goose magnets. And geese, like rabbits, squirrels, sparrows and other urban wildlife, adapt quickly and permanently. I think it is what an organism does if it wants to survive. Geese want to survive just like us on some level, and they try to thrive. In that they are succeeding, but are being hated on for it. We like our lawns, greens, boardwalks, and grassy lakeside parklands but so do the geese. But existing birds will continue to not only adapt, but by their presence attract others of their kind.

By example, snow geese were a much rarer sighting than Canadian geese, but they now occupy many of the same lanes in the flyway in my neck of the woods as the Canadian geese. They have not settled year round here in any appreciable numbers, but in the northern tier of the state they have begun to. Can we disallow the effects of global warming on this? I think not, as the whole complex matrix it encompasses has already been shown to effect animal behavior in many ways, especially in habitat destruction. It is not illogical to think that the flip side might be harmful too. Habitat creation may not always yield the desired results. If the habitats we have created along the Atlantic flyway are attractive to geese now, do you think that warmer trending winters will make them less so? Obviously not, and the conversation will become more productive once it turns from the eradication of resident geese to our adaptation to their presence. I don’t know the answer, but I do know we won’t find it until we start asking the right questions.

Shortly after the New Year I pulled into gravel lot near the sight of an old gristmill which was built in conjunction with the establishment of our country’s first reservation for it’s indigenous people. It is at a place called Indian Mills, New Jersey. As I gathered my fishing gear to try for some of the giant bluegill that frequent the brook here in the winter, I heard the muted honks of geese coming from the water beyond the rushes. As I crunched through the frosty grass towards them, they flushed from the stream while I was still forty yards away. Perhaps two dozen large Canadian geese, wings beating strongly, now honking almost stereotypically as their survival instinct kicked in by the approach of the “not a goose” that was me. They rose and banked right, landing as one in a small bay on the opposite shore on the small lake above the brook. Wild geese, not expecting bread or bird seed, or needing to be nudged out of the way like many of their resident kin. An hour later, after releasing a husky bluegill, I was drawn to a sound from the east. A large noisy V formation of Canadian geese was approaching on a vector that would put them above the cove where their brethren floated, and then me. At once there was a flurry of activity from the geese I startled earlier, as they gathered, rose, circled over the lake, banked, and with the precision of a ballet and the speed of the Blue Angels, they joined the flock passing overhead and continued southwest on their ancient flyway.

A light snow began to fall, our first of the season. I packed up and left, stopping at a convenience store for some coffee to warm this happy but chilled angler. As I sat in the car facing a field that melted to the edge of the pine woods, I saw two geese. They were pecking at the skim ice around the tiny drainage pond on the near edge of the field, thirty yards below me. The geese, large, heavy bodied birds, hadn’t flown too far in a long time, if ever. It is hard to judge the ideal flying weight of birds, but I knew what I was looking at in these two wasn’t it. After a few moments I realized they were staring at me too.

I had seen the look before as a child. The old folks sitting on concrete benches in the local city park, used to call it the Pigeon Stare. I would watch them feeding pigeons bits of bread, and they once beckoned me over, giving me a few scraps to let me feed them too. “The pigeons will not look at the bread in your hand”, one grizzled chap said, “they are looking into your eyes to see what is in your heart. That is what tells them whether there will be food for them. Your heart, not your hand.” From the angle of the two geese to where I sat behind the wheel, with a coffee in one hand, and a bagel in the other, I could not definitively say what they were looking at. But in the end, it made no difference. I was not hungry enough to eat the whole bagel anyway, and I suddenly felt the need to go home and write a few things down, which you have just read.

Flock of geese flying over a field

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