Is there a certain sound that invokes autumn for you? I bet if you asked a dozen people what sound most represented the change of season from summer to fall, over half would say the sound of geese honking in flight. The others would probably say the sound of leaves crunching underfoot. Try it as informal experiment and see what you come up with.
For me, birding in the fall is the sound of Canada geese as they fly overhead in an uneven V formation, always pointed in a southerly direction. For some people that same sound will be a herald of spring, but now as October arrives, after an unusually
warm September, the geese are gathering in large numbers; family groups that are feeding throughout the day to build up a good supply of fat for their annual autumnal migration.
The Canada Goose is found all across North America and in order to adapt to all the various regions and habitats, the birds have evolved into ten or eleven (depending on who you ask) subspecies or races. The Giant Canada Goose, the largest of all, weighs as much as 24 pounds, but averages around 12.5 pounds, with a wingspan of nearly six feet. It was believed to be extinct around 1920, but in 1963 a researcher from the Illinois Natural History Survey, working with the Minnesota DNR trapped and banded 200 of the large geese on Silver Lake in Rochester. These were confirmed as the Giant subspecies. Subsequently more were found on refuges in the Midwest.
Thus began an effort to capture and move some of them to areas where they had been absent. The result was an overwhelming success in terms of population increase. So much so, that they have since become a nuisance in some places. Canada Geese are one example of a species that has benefited from our presence and habits. The word for this is synanthrope.
These birds are mainly grazers of vegetation, both on land and in the water. They are often seen in cut over corn fields in the fall and spring, gleaning leftovers. But they are also fond of the tender grass found on city lawns and golf courses and this is where the trouble starts. What was once an attractive, large waterfowl suddenly morphs into a noisy, aggressive, fertilizing nightmare. One more example of good intentions gone bad. We seem to have a hard time adjusting the dial when trying to restore nature’s balance.
Whether you consider them a nuisance or not, to see these large grey and black birds winging overhead is always a marvelous sight. There are differing opinions of the value of a V formation. Some say this particular pattern allows
birds to take advantage of the ‘slip stream’, the vortices of disturbed air that flows off the wing tips of the bird ahead giving extra lift to those following, and thereby reducing the effort needed in flight. A V formation allows the geese to fly as much as 71% further then they could individually. That is especially significant when you learn that some fly as far as 4,000 miles.
An alternative theory says that flying in a V formation is just a way to maintain visual contact with the flock and avoid collisions. Scientists will continue to analyze and study this form of flight and the rest of us will just go on bird watching and looking skyward and listening for that cacophony of honks, as the geese bid us farewell.
The author who has best described the calls and flight of Canada geese is Aldo Leopold. He has captured the feeling of these departing flocks and so I share with you a paragraph from Sand County Almanac. “The flock emerges from the low clouds, a tattered banner of birds, dipping and rising, blown up and blown down, blown together and blown apart, but advancing, the wind wrestling lovingly with each winnowing wing. When the flock is a blur in the far sky I hear the last honk, sounding taps for summer.”
By Kate Crowley