Early spring brings waves of Canada geese over the Red River Valley. The noise of migrating geese was almost continuous on mornings last weekend, and the same has been true on the weekdays since.
The goose plays a funny role in our folklore. It is seen as a silly creature and a wanderer, but it is neither.
Sitting on the deck last Saturday morning listening to the geese, I remembered a song my older brother used to play on our 78-rpm phonograph back in the early 1950s. It was “Cry of the Wild Goose,” by Frankie Laine. The lyrics asked, “Wild goose brother which is best? A wandering fool or a heart at rest?”
The protagonist in the song, an opportunistic young man, uses the goose’s supposed answer as an excuse to leave his lover.
No matter that geese mate for life.
No matter either that the movements of geese are clearly purposeful. They cross the continent in one direction to reproduce and retrace their route to spend the winter.
It is true that some geese do loiter. Usually these are unattached juveniles. Sometimes, they are mature birds that have lost mates.
These birds are not really wanderers, either. They move along the usual goose migration routes. Since they aren’t engaged in the business of perpetuating the species, they aren’t in quite the hurry as breeding birds are.
So, flocks of geese northbound sometimes occur into the summer.
A longer stay
It’s also true some geese stick around in the winter. This has been commonplace in the Missouri River Valley north of Bismarck since Garrison Dam was completed more than half a century ago. Water goes through the dam’s turbines every day, and the movement keeps the river immediately below the dam from freezing over.
In more recent years, geese have spent the winter on open water at local lagoons, including municipal lagoons north of East Grand Forks and west of Grand Forks.
Two factors have helped keep geese here in winter.
One is that winters have been warmer lately than they have historically. You can dispute the cause, but you can’t deny the fact.
The other is that geese have benefited from the rapid expansion of cropland agriculture. Geese are gleaners and grazers, and they exploit the residue left in fields.
Geese are more abundant now than they ever before have been.
A spring hunting season for snow geese only proves the point.
The snow geese have exploited man’s ways in another, perhaps more surprising, way. Their migratory corridor has moved farther west. Half a century ago, snow geese stuck mostly to the eastern part of the state; today, they are common migrants farther west.
These changes are evidence that geese are not fools. Rather, they are opportunists that respond to changes in the environment to their own benefit.
Geese also are aware of danger. One memorable October, the Herald’s chief photographer and I were returning to Grand Forks after covering an event in Portage la Prairie, Man. We were struck by the enormous number of snow geese we saw on the Canadian side of the border and the very few we saw on the U.S. side. The difference? A hunting season.
Most of the geese we see in the Red River Valley are Canada geese. This is a big, conspicuous bird. Canada geese nest in our area. These are members of a subspecies that had nearly disappeared. Giant Canada geese now are common throughout the area, often taking up space on golf courses and in road ditches—prime ground for grazers and evidence that geese are rather more savvy than they are silly.
Other species of geese occur here, as well. The Canada goose is familiar. The cackling goose is a smaller version of the Canada recently elevated to the status of a full species. An identification challenge arises here. Cackling geese are virtually identical to Canada geese in plumage color and pattern. There are differences in the bodies of these two species, though. National Geographic’s “Complete Birds of North America” describes cackling geese this way: “A small, stubby-billed goose with short legs, stocky body and short neck.”
Snow geese are easily recognized, too. They are white with black wing tips. A color morph, called the blue goose, has a lot of brown on the body.
Another species, Ross’ goose, is nearly identical to the white snow goose, but with the same stubby bill shape of the cackling goose. They are much less abundant than snow geese, but a careful search of snow goose flocks often will produce a Ross’ goose.
Snows, blues and Ross’s geese are migrants here.
So, too, is the last of our geese. This is the white-fronted goose. This bird is misnamed. Front here refers to the area just behind the bird’s bill, not to its breast. This patch is hard to see—impossible to see in geese aloft. Better to rely on the goose’s call, which is high pitched. It’s earned the birds a nickname: “laughing geese.”