Flight School

A Canada goose squadron flying in tight formation.

A new Canada goose squadron takes wing!

.

The 2015 class of Canada geese (Branta canadensis) naval aviators started flight school this week!

I’ve been watching these youngsters on daily dog-walks in the park since early May. When they first showed up I noticed their resemblance, in size and coloration, to the yellow puffball flowers of the American sycamores (Platanus occidentalis) towering above. There were about 8-10 adults living in and around the lake and two pairs successfully hatched large clutches, the second batch about 10 days after the first. The whole flock pitched in to keep the cautious but curious brood within a protective circle, long black necks and heads swiveling like periscopes scanning the horizon for imminent threats.

downy canada gosling by Ingrid Taylar (CCL)

.

Every morning’s stroll includes a peek into the classroom, watching as the new recruits move through basic training.  First lesson: water = safety. Mandatory swimming lessons for all sailors! Initially, members of the new crew were skeptical, needing some strongly worded encouragement from a drill instructor to take the plunge.

.

drill sergeant by rachel kramer, ccl

.

In no time at all, though, they had their sea-legs and formed a flotilla.

.

gosling flotilla by Eric Bégin, CCL

.

Next, the unit practiced how to parade. The slow, unhurried pace set by the adults was clearly intended to convey respectability and prestige, and they pulled it off with stately ease. The trainees were another story entirely. Try as they might to imitate their elders, casual dignity is mighty difficult to achieve when your growing body hasn’t quite caught up to your oversized feet—ask any 12 year old boy wearing size 11 sneakers. The slightest break in concentration and the whole company piled up like dominos.

.

big feet by Pam P Photos, CCL

.

There was so much to learn! How to keep their uniforms squared away…

.

preening by Tjflex2, CCL.

…calisthenics to strengthen those important pectoral muscles…

.

flapping gosling by Jeremiah John McBride, CCL

.

…choosing the right mess hall…

.

grazing gosling by Ray Morris, CCL

.

…not to mention growing by leaps and bounds. Before long, it was time to strap on the black aviator helmet and take off!

.

gosling chin-strap by Eric Bégin, CCL

.

Their first flights were brief and aquatic; buoyant new pilots seem to find over-water touch-and-go’s less intimidating. What’s the worse that can happen? You ditch, you get wet.  A bruised ego heals a lot faster than broken bones.

.

water landing by John Benson, CCL

.

Next, the flight instructors lead youngsters on low, circular cruises around the park, honking encouragement all along the way. Landing on turf requires more skill and daring..

.

touchdown by John Benson, CCL

.

… as well as greater maneuverability to avoid trees, lamp posts, power lines, and buildings. Practice makes perfect but there can be some embarrassing mistakes along the way. One missed turn can result in an unintended landing.

.

roof goose by essayru, CCL

.

Still, they’ve definitely got the right stuff: determination, focus, and drive. Whether they choose to become full-time Midwesterners or set off next year for northern climes to search for adventure and a mate, wild blue yonder here they come!

.

early flight by J. Michael Raby, CCL

.

.

.
© 2015 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work  but please ask). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license (from top to bottom):  Gidzy (squadron in flight); Ingrid Taylar (downy); Rachel Kramer (drill sergeant); Eric Bégin (flotilla); Tjflex2 (preening); Jeremiah John McBride (calisthenics); Ray Morris (grazing goslings); Eric Bégin (aviator helmet); John Benson (water landingturf touchdown); essayru (missed turn); J. Michael Raby (morning flight).  Thanks also to Pam Parsons (big feet) for permission to use her photo.

The Urge for Going… or maybe not

Urban canada geese flying through a neighborhood

Urban Canada geese flying through a neighborhood (©iStockphoto.com/Bruce Smith)

See the geese in chevron flight, a-flapping and a-racing on before the snow
They’ve got the urge for going, and they’ve got the wings to go.
~ Joni Mitchell, The Urge for Going

Vaguely aware of dusk approaching, I was sitting at the kitchen counter grading homework assignments. Normally, I don’t like to stop in the middle of a paper but I heard a clarion call that made me bolt for the door without a second thought—the rasping two-note hank-honk, hank-honk of Canada geese.  For me, this sound is the very essence of autumn and wanderlust, and I responded instinctively.

My disappointment at not being able to sprout feathers and tag along was tempered by the fact that I could tell this particular flock wasn’t going very far. They were resident geese, a relatively new concept that refers to birds that hang around all year long rather than migrate with the changing seasons. The urge for going, it seems, does not reside in the heart of every Canada goose.

Scientists used to think migration was an undeniable impulse. This idea gained strength following experiments in which some species of wild birds were raised in captivity under circumstances that prevented them from experiencing environmental signals, yet they continued to behave like their uncaged brethren. For example, when allowed to fly they demonstrated a preference for the same direction as the migratory path their conspecifics in the wild were navigating. The urge for going is strong among many birds, including warblers and vireos, northern pintails and blue-winged teals. Canada geese, however, seem able to take migration or leave it, at least those living in the burgs and ‘burbs.

Wildlife biologists are supposed to take a dim view of anthropomorphism, but when I observe a flock of resident geese at this time of year my overactive mind hears an urban waterfowl couple discussing their winter travel plans, à la Pixar:

Goose (voiced by Betty White): Dear, I’ve been thinking… wouldn’t it be nice to skip the move down south and just stay put this year?

Gander (voiced by Robert Duvall): Now, Mother, what’s gotten into that feathered head of yours? We can’t just skip migration! It’s a tradition in our family that goes back more generations that anyone can count! What would the rest of the flock say?!

Goose: Some of the flock did stay behind last year, you know, and it worked out just fine. Travel is so metabolically expensive… maybe it would be smart to consider a staycation. Just think about it. That’s all I ask.

One feature of the urban landscape that makes winter survival easier for resident geese, even in northern states, is the heat island effect. Cities have a lot of thermal mass. According to the U.S. EPA, evening temperature differences can be as large as 22°F (12°C). That means lakes and ponds freeze over less often—an appealing feature for waterfowl. And the food supply at a park or on a golf course is plentiful year-round.

When faced with the question, “should I stay or should I go?” more and more geese are choosing to stay. And why not?

How did I know the geese winging past my door were year-round neighbors? Migrating geese can be seen flying high and fast unless they’re heading down to rest and refuel. My geese were flying low and slow, gaining altitude only when necessary to avoid colliding with power lines and apartment buildings. Knowing I’d see them again if I keep my ears open, I bid them goodnight, said hello to the nearly full moon, and stepped back inside to grade… and dream of flight.

Have a question about wildlife and other next-door nature? Send me an email and the answer may turn up as a future blog post. And don’t forget to friend NDN on Facebook!

© 2010 Next-Door Nature — no reprints without written permission from the author.