The Giant Canada Goose—Monarch of the Flyways
UH-WHONK! Uh-whonk! This resonant call announces: The royalty of the flyways is on the move! Long before you spot them from the ground that distinctive sound heralds their presence high in the sky above. Soon, the familiar, stately V-formations come to view. Perhaps you wonder: From where have they come? Where are they going? Let Wawa (the Ojibwa word for a giant Canada goose) tell you his story.
What wonderful care mother took of us. Plucking a spot on her breast bare, she used the down in lining our nest. The warm, bare patch of skin was pressed against each egg in turn, furthering the process of incubation. Finally, after 28 days, I picked through the buff-white shell that had surrounded me, and was soon joined by eight fluffy brothers and sisters. When mother left the nest for short periods, she saw to it that we golden-tan downies were all safely snuggled out of sight in the cozy warmth of the grayish-brown blanket of down that lined our nest. Besides insulating us from cold and heat, that blanket camouflaged us from the keen eyes of swooping gulls and other predators.
While mother sat on the nest, father, holding his long black neck erect, patrolled the island hummock of the Arctic tundra lake on which our nest was built. His jet-black eyes were constantly alert for signs of danger. A loud uh-whonk! or hiss signaled to mother to flatten herself and stretch out her neck and head. She would then lie motionless until the danger had passed. Her gray-brown body, with its distinctive white crescent just in front of the black tail, was perfect camouflage. Sometimes a fox or a wolf invaded the realm over which my father held sway. Keeping close to mother, we goslings saw how he fearlessly attacked the predator with his six-foot wingspread, flailing for all he was worth. Soon the enemy was forced into the water, yelping and with its tail between its legs. The predator learned the hard way that eighteen to twenty pounds of a giant Canada goose behind those thrashing wings was nothing with which to trifle.
Within a few days we, emitting contented ‘wheeoos,’ followed mother down to the water. Father was our rear guard. Until sufficiently leathered, we returned to the nest each evening, to be kept warm under mother’s great wings. Then, as our parents lost their feathers in the annual molt, all of us were earthbound, unable to fly. Hence, our elders always kept us close to them as we swam among the reeds and tall grasses, looking for luscious tidbits—water insects, bulbous water plants, tender grasses and berries. By the time our parents had new plumage, we, too, had full-grown wings and tail feathers. Now it was time for us to learn to use our wings.
Our Creator has provided us with beautiful, strong wings, aerodynamically sound in design. When fully developed, the leading edge is thick and blunt, tapering over a distance of about twenty-one inches (.5 meter) to the thinness of a feather on the trailing edge. To facilitate lift, the wing is slightly concave on the underside and curved upward on the topside. We can glide down from altitudes of seven to nine thousand feet (2,100 to 2,700 meters) simply by keeping our wings outstretched to ride the air currents. When on the move, however, our wings propel us along at speeds of 40 to 60 miles (64 to 97 kilometers) per hour. Their downward movement is the “power stroke.” The tips of our “primaries,” as you call the ten large feathers at the end of each wing, bend upward against the resisting air and twist at an angle to our wings. Doing so, they “bite” into the air in the same way a propeller does on some of your “mechanical birds.”
On newly grown-in feathers our parents took off and sailed effortlessly over our heads, calling to us and flapping their wings to demonstrate what we should do. We tried very hard, flapping our wings and running back and forth. Finally, we discovered the knack of kicking the ground or water away with our feet to become airborne. Now, as we daily practiced flying, our wing muscles grew ever stronger. Sometimes landings were not too regal as we plunged into the water with a big splash. Gradually, though, we learned to use our whole body and wings as an air brake, and to stick out our big feet (we are noted for these), to make the first contact with the water or land. As we perfected our skills, our parents cheered us on with loud honks of approval. All this training prepared us for the day when we would follow them into the air for our first autumn migration flight.
I much preferred our flight training to the experience of some of our cousins that have their homes in treetops or on rocky heights. When the parents realize that it is time for the wee ones to leave the nest, they simply call to them from down below. Climbing over the edge of the nest, the downies respond by plunging earthward, with stubby wings fluttering madly. Their fluffy covering and the motion of their wings provide air resistance, breaking the fall. So their first solo flight usually ends happily. But there is an ever-present danger of being impaled on a thorn during the descent. At Osoyoos, British Columbia, a few years ago, one careful mother overcame this danger to her fledglings by giving them a free airplane ride, open-cockpit Style, as she bore them safely on her back to the ground below!
Having perfected our flying skills, we grouped together with other families. The time for migration was rapidly nearing. What a gabbling went on! Perhaps because we are so garrulous you may think when you see us in sanctuaries that we are discussing world problems. But not so. We just have our own goose ‘language’ made up of hisses, grunts, wah-kums, kum! kum! kum!, snores, yips, screams and loud oh-oos. We hiss and honk to warn of danger; grunt and snore with contentment; sound a series of soft wah-kums to beckon our mate; softly call the children kum! kum! kum!; give way to yips, screams and loud oh-oos when attacked and bitten by another bird; and, of course, many of you are familiar with our vibrant uh-whonk!
All the while the built-in migration clock was ticking away in each of us. Finally, the hour struck, and with a mighty beating of wings we took to the air. Quickly forming into mostly two-family V’s we were on our first lap of three to four hundred miles (483 to 644 kilometers) toward winter feeding grounds. Our flyway eventually took us through Manitoba, Minnesota and along the Mississippi River to the Gulf coast of Texas.
When we migrate, is it the oldest and wisest gander who takes the lead position? No. Next time you observe our royal processions, watch closely and you will see the lead bird change position with another from time to time. Quite often a female takes the lead. You see, we believe in relieving one another of the arduous task of “breaking up” the air for those who follow. Other birds all fly a little to one side of the bird ahead, giving us the benefit of about thirty-six far-seeing eyes to watch for good resting and feeding places, or humans who may want a nice fat goose for a tasty meal. Often, any movement you make in your hunter’s blind is spotted long before we are in range of your guns. We are blessed with both good eyesight and acute hearing.
As months went by, a new instinct awakened inside us—the urge to find a mate. What excitement there was as each of us made known our intention with lowered head, outstretched neck and hissing noises, running toward the object of our fancy! What happiness we felt when she responded in kind! Gently rubbing necks together, we agreed to become “sweethearts” for this second year of our lives, waiting until the following year to mate. Then at our “wedding ceremony” first the gander, then the goose, dip their heads under water and thereafter throw water over their backs, announcing to all onlookers that they have entered the ‘bonds of wedlock. Our mating then is for life, or, as your saying goes, “till death do us part.”
In conclusion, don’t you think we have many interesting characteristics? Besides, you can tame us easily, and we will always be glad to have God-fearing mankind exercise loving dominion over us.