Let us go, then, you and I, to where the wild goose goes

On Books

May 23, 2004|By Michael Pakenham | Michael Pakenham,Sun Book Editor

As I write, I have just spent a half-hour in the living room of our weekend house in very rural Pennsylvania, binoculars focused on the pond. On it float two adult Canada geese, heads high and ranging, vigilant against predators. Between them, seven very fluffy, gray-tan goslings feed vigorously on waterweeds. Hatched 18 to 20 days ago, they eat almost constantly - in the water and on grass. They have almost doubled in size in the last nine days.

The parents, we think but cannot be sure, are Popeye and Olive, who nested here last year. They had arrived, from somewhere south and warm, six or seven weeks before their brood appeared. Olive built a nest and laid the last of four eggs almost precisely four weeks before they all hatched. Two days later, the family disappeared, walking, Indian-file, overland to some other piece of water. A few days later, a larger, new family of geese took their place and stayed into the autumn. This year, a similar switch has occurred and the new arrivals seem familiar and at home.

Wild geese, especially in large numbers, can be messy and intrusive, but my experience suggests that's usually the fault of humans' misplaced hospitality- domesticating them into near parasites. We have become fond and fascinated by unspoiled wild ones. I have come to understand Bernd Heinrich's declaration:

"I'm affected. I've been seduced by the geese. Some biologists are apologetic for forming attachments, because they feel that it makes them less objective scientists. True enough, by concentrating my attention on the geese in this beaver bog I have looked less closely at the beavers, the red-winged blackbirds, the goldfinches, the rose-breasted grosbeaks. ... My focus on the geese has been like a compass that has directed and held my attention. However, I don't feel that this has compromised my objectivity. ... The problem of compromised objectivity comes less from being enamored by a beautiful animal, than by being too infatuated with a beautiful theory. It arises by being led by an inner light rather than by external empirical reality."

For me, it was serendipitous that Heinrich's latest book has come out now: The Geese of Beaver Bog (HarperCollins, 240 pages, $24.95). He has written eight previous books, including Mind of the Raven, which won the John Burroughs Medal for Natural History Writing, and Winter World. He is a professor of biology at the University of Vermont and spends most of his time between Vermont and the back woods of Maine.

Though a biologist, he states in his introduction that the book is not "hard science" but rather his very personal observations of specific wild Canada geese and in particular one that he followed from a fuzzy, just-hatched gosling to maturity. The gosling - which he onomatopoetically named Peep - was hatched by a neighboring farmer's domestic goose from an egg the farmer had taken from a wild nest. Without a mature goose or geese to attach to, Peep adopted Heinrich and his wife and son. By goose nature, goslings are seldom more than a few feet from their protector parents until they migrate in the late fall

At the end of the summer Peep was able - with some guidance from Heinrich and his pickup truck - to fly. She disappeared. Two springs later, in early March of 2000, she returned with a mate. From her markings - an identifying scar on one eyelid - and behavior, Heinrich had no doubts that it was she.

They decided to call her gander Pop. After a few days he became accustomed to the house, and both geese slept on the porch as Peep did when tiny. The Heinrichs left them corn. After several vicious territorial fights over exclusive control of the beaver pond near the house, they nested - a year earlier than the usual third year, which Heinrich attributes to the fact that he had fed them so well with corn.

From this point on, the tale becomes too complicated to distill here. It's a saga full of drama. A half-dozen and more geese did extraordinarily improbable things such as abandoning their eggs, and smashing others' and then returning. Their behavior involving Heinrich and other geese and animals often defies decoding. But Heinrich's probing and analyses are fascinating. When bits and pieces of clear evidence connecting behavior and motivation arrive, there is a sense of heady excitement.

It's a tight, intricate story, and it's keenly exploratory science - though Heinrich goes to great length to avoid generalizing about the entire spectrum of wild geese.

There are, however, delightful revelations:

n The cliche of wild goose monogamy - "mating for life" - is untrue. Their mating is highly volatile, and includes battles, both dramatic and violent, between interlopers and prior mates, with initiative from both genders.

n Once a pair has mated and produced young, they are firmly bonded for that year and are fiercely protective of their brood.

n Canada geese will often "adopt" goslings that have been abandoned or whose natural parents have been killed or driven off.

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