Although almost all of the snow has finally melted off the landscape, most of the inland ponds and marshes are still locked in a cover of ice. The pussy willows are expressing springtime at their tips but are still locked into winter at their watery bases. So, until this last vestige of winter ice finally yields to the sun, the locals just have to wait.
Aquatic creatures such as geese are forced to walk on the water until swimming becomes a viable option. Canada Geese are not ones to patiently wait for anything. They are already carrying on as if things were already in a liquid state – staking out nesting territories and mates just the same. Late February to early March is the pair bonding season for geese and they are full of overflowing emotions this time of year. Behavioral interactions that would normally take place while swimming are happening in full body view on a cold level playing field.
Canada Geese are hardly worth the expense of too much digital ink, but you can’t ask for a better bird to demonstrate body English. Actually, I’m pretty sure that they don’t speak English, and that their bodies don’t either, but it’s not hard to translate some of this stuff into our tongue. I’ll just call it Goose English. With their long expressive necks, large size, and wide vocal skills they can’t hide their feelings well. And, because they are so common, they are easily observed. Let’s not look a gift goose in the mouth.
You can break down goose English into a few body moves and some nine different calls. For the sake of this discussion I’ll stick to the body English and sum up the calls into “honk, a-honk, and hiss.” In short you have the head/neck pump, the head bobble, the extended neck and – of course, the attack. The honks accompany all these actions except the extended neck which tends to be a hissing or even a silent move.
I watched a pair of birds recently at Crosswinds Marsh that were in fine form. When first encountered they were placidly napping, along with several other widely spaced geese (as well as a farm goose that joined the flock a few years ago). Heads tucked back between their shoulders and balancing improbably on one leg, they were the picture of complacency. That was until three other geese landed on the ice nearby. These birds arrived in a flurry of honking and slid wildly across the ice for a few feet as they landed. Our sleeping birds immediately raised their heads high and turned to meet the arrivals.
Both sets of birds started to bob their heads up and down. The sweep of the head pump brought their beaks down to the level of their chest and back up again. All were agitated as if to repeatedly say “oh yeah” to each other without actually issuing any challenge. This patch of ice weren’t big enough for all concerned, however, and eventually our pair started to walk.
While walking, the two – especially the one I took to be the gander – performed a head bobble. This can best be described as agitated honking accompanied by head shaking in the manner of shedding water after a bath. This action accentuates the white chin patch and signals something to the opposition, but what exactly is not known. Bobbling appears to be a decision making mode similar to one scratching their head while thinking and saying “why, I’m gonna…I’m gonna have to… do something about this…” In other words, bobbling geese are thinking geese.
Soon enough, after only a few seconds, our pair made their decision to charge the interlopers. At this point they lowered their heads so that their necks were parallel to the ice and charged the other geese. Loud hissing turned into a flurry of feathers and honking as the birds met up with the opposition (who decided to flee this onslaught without delay).
When all was over, our pair returned to their spot of cold ground, and celebrated the victory. Heads high and wide mouthed, the gander stuck out his tongue at the world like a Kiss fan (see above). All quickly returned to peace and they resumed their one-legged pose. Of course the whole scene was repeated as soon as the next flight arrived.
Now, you will notice that the farm goose (A Graylag Goose) was sleeping next to this pair of geese. He has somehow bonded with the Canadas and has mentally become one. He occasionally joins them in some of these scuffles, but seems to ignore most of them. Oddly enough he is ignored in turn by our aggressive pair. I’m guessing this fellow is affectionately called the “big guy” by the natives. Unfortunately, because this bird speaks in heavily accented Hungarian tones (due to his European roots) he’s not well understood by anyone.