Wild Geese Calling in the Fall
Article by Julie Pacholik
For me, fall is full of mixed emotions. I live for those hot summer days. In the early summer, I’m the first to jump in the still cold water. I always seem to find myself basking in the full sun and prefer to be barefoot as much as possible. So when the nights start getting chilly and I need to put on socks, I feel a little sad. When it’s too cold to go swimming, I imagine the long winter ahead and can sense the pull of the season drawing inward. The fall signals me back to what I struggle with the most: time indoors.
Thankfully for me, my spiritual journey took a turn when I moved to Vermont. Fall is so magical here, the beauty and brilliance of the season capture us all. I start seeing my favorite apple varieties in stores and I love cooking with peppers and winter squash. The season is so rich with possibility and tradition, even the abundance is abundant.
There are so many seasonal changes we can track but for me, the geese are one of my favorites. At first, it’s just a few, but as the weeks pass, the numbers grow. Once I hear the cacophonous honks of the Canada Goose and see their long lines in the sky, I know fall has really arrived. That distinctive sound, it brings me back to the moment. “Notice us!” they’re saying. I start looking around, taking note of the sun, the wind, the weather, the colors around me, my own body. They bring be back from whatever unnecessary thought that took me away.
I was first introduced to Mary Oliver as a college student in California. There are lots of geese there. Lots of birds, especially in winter. My family has an annual tradition of visiting a wildlife refuge on Christmas day. We go for a walk in the cool sometimes drizzly air and say hello to the hundreds of birds who spend their winter among the marshy, wet grasslands. It feels rich with life, a stark contrast to winters in Vermont.
It’s surprising, even when growing up in such a bird loving family, that I was captured by the geese only after moving to Vermont. I’ve always loved Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese” but since moving to Vermont, it has given new meaning to me.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Although there are many types of geese, when I hear the word “goose” I immediately think of the Canada Goose. There are seven subspecies that are all considered the Canada Goose and vary slightly in size and coloration. It is a large bird with a long, black neck and smooth transition from head to bill. A brown body with a pale to white chest and undertail. But the most distinctive feature is the white chin strap.
In the early 1900s the Canada Goose was thought to be extinct in the US due to habitat loss and overhunting. In a response to the low numbers, the Department of Fish and Wildlife published “Hometown Honkers” a workbook on how to house and care for a flock of geese. Geese were then shipped from Canada, all across the country by the hundreds. As people made Canada Goose habitat, complete with nesting boxes and protection from predators, populations grew.
Populations grew so much, that two groups emerged. There were the original Canada Goose flocks that would summer in the north and migrate in the fall to warmer climates to overwinter. The secondary population stayed year round. These groups stayed where winters were milder, and food and habitat were abundant. Public parks and golf courses with ponds became overwhelmed with these resident geese.
We had done such a fine job at making goose habitat that the goose populations grew to become a nuisance. Flocks successfully moved into more urban environments. They mated younger and lived longer. Grass and lawns were plentiful and people enjoyed feeding the birds. Hunting in cities and populated areas is restricted and natural predators stayed away from the hubbub of city life. Droppings on lawns, parks, and sports fields were unsightly and also worried local residents about the health of swimming areas and drinking water. Nesting birds can be quite aggressive and larger flocks can cause crop damage in farming areas.
In an attempt to curb ballooning goose populations, The Department of Fish and Wildlife once again stepped in and changed laws. While the migratory birds are subject to a number of natural population checks (predation, late winter storms, migratory-related deaths), the resident populations are not. Hunting regulations shifted to include months when migratory birds would be elsewhere so resident populations were targeted. There are also a number of community groups across the country that work to curb populations by using a variety of tactics based on location and resources.
Weather you love the Canada Geese in your area or not, the story of the Canada Goose shows the ebbs and flows of populations and proves that humans can have a large impact if we choose to. While I sort out where I stand on the issue, I will enjoy the moments when I get to be pulled back to the present moment. When I hear the honks of the migrating birds “announcing your place in the family of things” I send blessings to them on their journey and give gratitude for my place on their flyway.
For more information on all things birds, may I highly recommend the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. They, sponsor the website allaboutbirds.org and the field- friendly smartphone app Merlin Bird. If you choose to engage offline, the Green Mountain Center in Huntington has a number of classes and programs for all ages on naturalist happenings for birds and beyond.