The Wheel of the Year
On the Wing!
By Tamia Nelson
November 13, 2007
A soaking drizzle had seeped from a featureless pewter sky all day. Yellow, red, and orange leaves pattered ceaselessly to the sodden ground, and as black night followed gray day, the still air grew cooler with every passing minute. By midnight, there was frost on the bedroom windows. That's when I was wakened from my first sleep by the plaintive honking of the geese. I listened as the flock wheeled high overhead, their calls growing and diminishing by turns as they scouted the shallows of The River. Then, after a few moments, silence reclaimed the night and I drifted back to sleep, only to waken once more, hours later, just as the first hint of dawn brightened the sky in the east. The geese were on the wing again. Five months ago, I could have collected an entire brood of goslings in my hat with room to spare. Now they and their parents along with hundreds of their kin were readying themselves to fly across the continent. How much had changed in so short a time!
The natural world offers numberless examples of parental devotion. Keeping a gaggle of goslings in check can't be easy, but on the Flow as elsewhere in Canoe Country the work is shared by adults from several families. That's bound to help the hard-pressed parents. The progress of the season eases their burden, too. The tiny chicks of June are nearly full-grown by the end of August. From then on, they're quite capable of looking after themselves.
This doesn't mean that they're ready to strike out entirely on their own, however. They'll accompany their parents on the long journey and remain with them throughout the winter, returning north in the spring. Well
those who survive will return, at any rate. Canada geese are said to mate for life, and from what I've seen over the years, I'd bet that this is often true, at least so long as both partners live. In fact, the ties sometimes continue even after death. Several years ago, a fox attacked a pair of geese near my house, killing the female outright. (She had been injured by a water-ski towboat and was unable to fly.) But the fox didn't get much of a meal for his trouble. The gander, a large, aggressive bird, somehow succeeded in driving the fox away, then mounted a tireless guard, remaining next to the lifeless body of his mate for days, until at last he, too, died. Did starvation kill him? Or was it exhaustion? Or simply despair? I can't begin to guess. Only one thing is clear: the bond between the pair remained strong even in death. With this extraordinary episode in mind, I've often wondered to what extent the filial bonds in geese survive long separation. Do older and now-independent offspring keep in touch with their parents from one year to the next? It seems possible. Beavers are known to maintain intergenerational ties over their lifetimes. Why not geese?
This year, happily, the three families of geese on my doorstep escaped both powerboats and foxes. And late in October they prepared to take their leave. They're not the only ones who flee before the onslaught of General Winter, of course. The tree swallows departed sometime in September. Every spring they return from Central America and the Gulf states to nest near the place where they were born though I count fewer each year than I did the year before. But I never see them gather to go. One day they're circling round over the water, snatching insects from the air. The next day, they're gone, and the midges swarm unmolested. Warblers, too, are birds of passage. In early October, they emerge from the shadows of the surrounding woods, more drably clad than they were in the spring, but still the same lively, engaging little birds. Then, like the swallows, they take flight for warmer climes.
But my favorite summer residents are the white-crowned and white-throated sparrows. Gregarious to a fault, they travel in company with the chipping sparrows, little birds whose calls sound remarkably like the Chip! of a chipmunk. Fox sparrows join the end-of-the-season party, too, chattering and scratting under the jack pines, while young white-throats practice their familiar song, variously transcribed as Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody! or O sweet Canada, Canada, Canada! The white-throats and white-crowns feed and fatten for a couple of weeks, but suddenly, without warning, they too move on, flying south through the night, navigating by the moon or the stars or some inward perception of the earth's magnetic field. So far as I can tell, the question is still unresolved. Migration holds many mysteries.
Other birds are on the move at the same time. The bald eagles who nested along The River had gone by the end of October, as had the ospreys, while for several weeks hawks soared high in the sky, descending now and again to perch watchfully in the tall poplars, their approach always heralded by the clatter of startled mourning doves exploding into flight, the barking of squirrels in the hedgerows, and choruses of frantic chucking from the few chipmunks still foraging above ground.
Yet not all birds fly before Winter's advance. The vultures stay behind to fatten on the corpses of white-tailed deer left in the woods by hunters too impatient to track wounded game, or killed by speeding cars. And other birds arrive from still higher latitudes. Juncos drift south in sooty masses from their breeding grounds up North, apparently finding Canoe Country winters temperate enough for their tastes. They flock alongside chickadees and goldfinches both year-round residents and have long, amiable discussions while awaiting the return of the pine siskins, fellow refugees from the harsh subarctic.
Meanwhile, the fall of the leaf reveals what was long hidden by summer's lush growth. Nuthatches both red-breasted and white-breasted clamber upside-down over tree trunks and limbs, calling to one another with a soft Ip! Ip! or a nasal Ank! Ank!, the latter greeting sounding for all the world like the honk of an old-fashioned bicycle horn. And while the nuthatches spiral down the rough bark of the big pines and old maples, the little birds known as brown creepers lurch upward. Sometimes a nuthatch and a creeper will cross paths, leading to a short-lived dispute over the right-of-way. Then there are the chickadees. Even on the darkest, coldest days of winter, when the season has long since grown old and the holiday euphoria has eroded away to a comfortless nub, chickadees have the ability to lift my spirits. The temperature may plummet to well below zero and the snow may drift high over the window sills, but the chickadees seemingly take no notice, nattering companionably to their flockmates as they prospect for seeds hidden deep in bark crevices. Who could remain melancholy for long in such company?
Still, while the cheerful chatter of chickadees is always heartening, I watch the geese gather together to fly south with a mixture of joy and sadness and not a little wonder. Some things about migration are self-evident. The Why? is seldom a mystery. Insect eaters like warblers confront a stark choice at summer's end, as do the nectar-feeders like hummingbirds: fly south or die. And waterfowl cannot remain once ice sheaths the waters. But there are many unanswered questions, nonetheless. Which brings me back to my disturbed night in late October. As the geese settled down on the Flow and I eased into sleep again, I gave a passing thought to the remaining mysteries. How is the decision to leave arrived at? Does a single leader an alpha goose, if you will make the call and issue a command which all obey, or is the matter decided by consensus? Moreover, what determines the date of departure? What signs and portents tell the geese that it is time to go? "Instinct" (whatever that might be) explains nothing. Is it the angle of the autumn sun? The temperature? The length of the day? Or is it all of these things? I was still turning the questions over in my head when sleep reclaimed me.