There is something incredibly primordial watching flocks of large birds flapping and honking through the sky.
Years ago in New Jersey, while attending a high school game of some sort, I spotted a single large bird flying overhead. Despite never having seen one, I knew it was a goose. Overcome with emotion, I stood up and started yelling “Goose! Goose!” to catch everybody’s attention.
Since one of my then teenagers was present, I was quickly deflated to hear, “Please sit down, Mom. We see them all the time.”
I was down on Broadway in the early weeks of February and was stunned to see a large flock of geese on the soccer/cricket lawn of Van Cortlandt Park. Not having much experience with them, I contacted one of my bird gurus.
The question was, “Were they still flying south for the winter, or were they already flying north with the expectation of warmer weather?”
The answer surprised me. It seems that some birds remain here the entire winter.
One reason the geese do not migrate so readily is the large number of open lawn space available in parks, golf courses and lawns. The geese can digest grass, and they like open spaces since it allows them to spot predators. They also require open water during the winter upon which they can swim away from land-based predators such as raccoons, foxes, wolves and coyotes.
Migrating geese weighing between five and 14 pounds fly at an average speed of 40 mph, and may travel as far as 2,000 to 3,000 miles at an altitude of 2,000 to 8,000 feet. They can fly 1,500 miles in a day with good weather since tailwinds can bring their speed up to 70 mph.
Canada geese (Branta canadensis) were dwindling at the beginning of the 20th century. The subspecies Giant Canada Goose (Branta canadensis maxima) was even thought to be extinct. When a small population was discovered in Minnesota in 1962, a successful restoration project commenced, and today that population exceeds 1.5 million birds.
In 2015, the overall population was estimated to be between 4.2 million and 5.6 million.
The epithet canadensis, for those who read my recent columns on botanical Latin, does not actually reference Canada. Instead, it simply means “North American.”
Branta is a Latinized form of Old Norse brandgas, meaning “burnt” or “black.” Given the goose’s black neck and face separated by a white “chinstrap” of feathers, the name seems apt.
Female Canada geese build nests on a slight rise such as a muskrat mound to improve their ability to view predators. The female builds the nest from dry grass, lichens, moss and other plant materials. She then plucks down from her own body to line the nest. The female will lay an egg a day with two to eight eggs per nest. She will lay eggs once only per breeding season, and the incubation period lasts between 25 and 28 days.
The goslings are covered in yellow down and their eyes are open at birth. By Day Two, they can walk, swim, feed and even dive. They learn to fly between two and three months, and will follow the parent birds during their first migration.
They mate for life, beginning the search for a mate between two and three years of age.
Goslings crossing a road in single file behind the mother bird can stop traffic. The goslings “imprint” on the mother within a few hours after hatching, and will follow her alone.
Psychologists have studied the phenomenon of imprinting, which occurs in nidifugous birds. Nidifugous birds are those born capable of independent movement, in contrast to altricial birds, where the young are born helpless. Altricial birds include herons, woodpeckers and perching birds.
We have all seen films about hatchlings that have imprinted on humans and need to be taught by their human “parents” how to fly and migrate. This teaching usually involves an ultra-light glider. “Fly Away Home” is a well-beloved film showing the problem and its solution.
Despite the attraction of wild birds, Canada geese are not welcome everywhere. The lawns they feed on are filled with green poop, making walking perilous. They can be aggressive — particularly when protecting their young — and can cause physical harm.
At takeoff and landing, they have been sucked into airplane engines, causing crashes. And since 1988, 200 people worldwide have died as a result.
Going back to my original question, dear readers, “Have the Canada geese down in Van Cortlandt Park actually overwintered here?” Considering the large grassy areas and open water there, I am guessing the answer is “yes,” but I would like to be certain.
I would appreciate hearing from you!
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