5/31/2009

Geese and Immigrants

The connection between Canada Goose and immigration probably isn’t obvious. Stick with me for a few paragraphs and I’ll try to draw lines between my dots.

Canada Geese are pretty amazing birds. They are physically large with a 50-88 inch wingspan, weighing 7-24 pounds. They live 10 to 24 years. They create large families and mate, sometimes, for life. They aren’t found in every area of the country. When you see them in their natural habitat, it is hard not to admire them for both their beauty and their resilience. By the 1950s, they were driven to near extinction by the combination of over-hunting, chemical poisoning (DDT and other pesticides and industrial farming chemicals), and loss of habitat. The received a little federal protection about the time there were fewer than 50 birds left in the world. And they have bounced back. They, unlike many migrating birds, have adapted their migration to the eastern United States and as far as Siberia, eastern China, and Japan. If you can’t admire that kind of toughness, you probably hate everything and everybody.

If you live on the edges of their flight path, you may be among those of us who think a Canada Goose sighting was a rare and special thing. I nearly bought a house in eastern Colorado, almost exclusively because there was a small pond behind the house where Canada Geese nested during the summer. Moving from southern California to a place where wildlife co-existed with human population was such a shock that I was overwhelmed by the opportunity and put my money down to take advantage of the prospect. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on the state of the Colorado economy of the moment, the seller turned down my offer in hope of finding a more motivated buyer. I still remember the backyard of that house and seeing a “v” of geese fly over and land a few yards away.

Today, I live in Minnesota and have a larger pond in my backyard that is usually populated with a dozen geese and a family or two every spring. In Minnesota, Canada Geese are not particularly appreciated. My wife and I love them and every year we look forward to their arrival in the spring and their families in the early summer. Many of our neighbors hate the droppings and the noise and actually fear being “wing-whipped” or "pecked" by the dreaded geese. To be honest, I am incapable of respecting anyone who is afraid of a bird. Chubby little city-boy Alfred Hitchcock references included, death by birds is not something a human should consider likely or particularly scary. But I’ve witnessed a few of our neighbors petitioning our city council to “protect” the neighborhood from the terror of Canada Geese and the city complies by hiring a local college professor and his gang of “naturalist” students to round up the geese, kill them or sell them to game “farms,” and, thereby, save the neighborhood from the goose threat.

Fear is a strange emotion. People will say any damn thing when they are afraid. Personally, I’d rather be wing-whipped to death by a million sparrows than to admit publicly that I’m afraid of a bird. But that’s just me. Likewise, I’d rather live under a bridge and eat grocery store castoffs than to admit that I can’t compete with third world immigrants for a job. When you give in to that kind of irrational fear, you are setting yourself up to be taken advantage by all sorts of con artists, fanatics, extremists, and every other Rush Limbaugh-type. You have to learn to control your panic if you want to live in civilized society.

On my way to work last week, I was heading west on I694 just past the new rats’ nest of freeway convolution when I passed a group of Canada Geese gathered on the edge of the freeway. The new freeway design has incorporated a collection of drainage ponds that attract waterfowl to the hazardous environment of a poorly designed fast moving freeway and we’re going to see a lot more of this sort of road kill as this design matures. The geese, one adult and several goslings, were all looking at the mangled body of an adult goose that had been recently hit as the geese crossed the freeway. They looked and acted exactly like a family of humans would look and act if they witnessed a parent being killed; they were shocked and stunned and appeared almost ready to go back into the traffic to assist the slaughtered parent.

One of the evolutionary tricks nature played on geese is that after eggs are laid, both parents loose their ability to fly for almost 30 days. This forces the parents to travel at the pace of their offspring until the goslings attach themselves to the parents and parental affection forces the parents to stick with their children until they are ready to care for themselves.


Nature has one sick sense of humor. Geese are not well-designed for walking, but walk they must until they can fly again. So, while we humans think the geese are just jamming up traffic out of stupidity, it’s really something more complicated.

Twelve hours later, I returned from work on the same path. The body in the road was much more mangled than it had been when I first saw it. There were feathers floating in the air almost like large flakes of snow. The whole family was still stuck on the edge of the freeway, all looking at that unrecognizable gory shape, all unable to believe life was over for that parent and the rest of the family would have to figure out how to get along without the dead parent.

This connection between geese and humans struck me particularly hard that evening. It was too easy to see myself in the surviving family. Usually, it’s easy to imagine geese, raccoons, bears, lions and tigers, and people who don’t speak the same language as being something lesser than ourselves. “Them and us” is a convenient perspective when we feel our resources are being taken by someone or something that we can simply run over with our cars, our police, our military, or our majority vote. The truth is that many of the animals on earth love their families. Nature designed us to care for our offspring, our mates, and to protect them with our lives. The connection between geese and humans is painfully close and, sometimes, unavoidably obvious.

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