Biodiversity is all very well, unless you're a goose

November 19, 1995|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE De GRACE -- When I went out past the pond early the other morning on my way to check the cows, there was nothing on it except a lone bufflehead drake. He was autumn-fat, one of those round little ducks that hunters call ''butterballs,'' and he was easy to spot in his shiny black and white outfit.

Usually at that hour there are geese on the pond, but I didn't see any this time. The bufflehead had the place all to himself. As I passed I noticed that a canoe paddle had been blown off the bank by the wind. It was frozen into the skin of ice that had formed over the shallows during the night, and I left it there, planning to come back later and put it away.

By the time I got back to the pond the sun was well up and the frost on the grass had melted, except in the shady places. My daughter's little terrier was with me. We approached from downhill, below the dam that makes the pond, and well before I could see the water I could hear geese conversing. They sounded agitated.

Flight of the hawk

The pond was still out of view when a red-tailed hawk flew right overhead, quite low. It neither screamed at me nor jinked away, ** which seemed slightly odd, but it flew purposefully away and vanished over a hill. I wondered if it was the hawk that had alarmed the geese.

Then I saw the eagle. It was right in front of me, circling low over the pond, its white head and tail brilliant in the morning light. On each circle it would swoop out of sight behind the dam, the goose noise would grow even more frantic, and then the eagle would appear again. It was so intent on what was beneath it that it paid no attention to me whatsoever.

The little dog was still heading for the pond and I whistled her back, thinking as I did so that I wouldn't want to have to explain to her owner that she'd been airlifted away by a bald eagle. She weighs about 10 pounds, and Roger Tory Peterson says a bald eagle can lift only 7 1/2 , but this was a big eagle and might not have read Peterson.

With the furiously wiggling terrier under my arm, I walked slowly up the slope toward the pond so I could find out what was going on. The eagle made one more dive, but then it prudently flew away in the general direction of the Susquehanna River.

In the center of the pond I found four geese, still gabbling in indignation. Right in the middle of them, like a child protected by hovering aunts, was the little bufflehead. It seemed pretty clear that he owed the geese his survival.

A varied diet

Most bald eagles prefer fish, but they're adaptable feeders, and have been known to take ducks off the water. They've even been reported to have killed great blue herons and brown pelicans. But an eagle would have to be either drunk or desperate to take on an adult Canada goose.

Not so many years ago, we never saw an eagle over our farm. Then, as the pesticide DDT was removed from the food chain and both eagles and ospreys began to make their dramatic recovery, that changed. Now the upper Chesapeake Bay, particularly Aberdeen Proving Ground, has become a major eagle population center, and eagles are becoming more and more familiar over the nearby countryside.

They also seem to be becoming more tolerant of people, which may not be such a good thing. In fact, it's probably only a matter of time until bald eagles begin to have the kind of close encounters with humanity that can create problems.

If they ever start snatching kittycats from suburban backyards, for example, or take a fancy to young lambs, they're going to need some serious public-relations help.

Like the white-tailed deer and the black bear, other cherished ornaments of the Maryland outdoors, bald eagles are big creatures. As with deer and bear, we have put great effort into maintaining and improving their habitat. And as the population of these desirable species grows, it's applauded.

But only up to a point. People with deer in their vegetable gardens or bears in their garbage tend to wonder, perhaps not unreasonably, if there aren't a few too many. And the day may come when similar reservations are raised about eagles.

I wouldn't say that day's here, or that it's even close. Seeing a huge bald eagle over our little pond, awesome in the November sunshine, absolutely made my day. But as I went to the edge of the pond and retrieved my floating canoe paddle, the geese continued to gabble and the little bufflehead fluffed up his

feathers.

With eagles as with many other things, they implicitly suggested, a lot depends on your perspective.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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