A Hybird Honker

Who am I?

Like the bear going over the mountain, I sometimes I go walking just to see what I can see. There are no mountains at Crosswinds Marsh but that is the place I chose for my most recent blind foray. In the wake of a deeply chilled night the place was ice covered and frosted. It was a place of white shadows and white birds. Hundreds of Ring-billed Gulls mingled with a scattering of ceramic Mute Swans. The foreheads of twenty or so foraging Sandhill Cranes provided a flash of red to the scene. Great Blue Herons, refusing to yield to migration pressures, claimed the boardwalk rails as their fishing platforms. This being Crosswinds, there were also Canada Geese in numbingly huge numbers.

I barely give notice to the honkers because they are as numerous and common as the cat-tails. Because cat-tails are not weeds, I can’t state that geese are like weeds, but I am tempted. Scanning their numbers, the hope is to spot an occasional Snow Goose among their numbers. Last week I did see one such fowl here.  This time, my attention was drawn to the big-butted domestic Goose mingling with the horde.

 The Graylag in Question

The bird has been here for many years. It “hangs” with the local geese and no doubt considers itself as a true Canadian (in fact looking a whole lot like the mayor of Toronto). In basic appearance, this goose is the spitting image of the wild Graylag Goose from which it, and most farm geese, are descended. It is much thicker than its wild cousin thanks to decades of breeding as a table bird. In other words, that big behind is not the result of evolutionary accident or lack of exercise.

Parent or Bystander?

Short necked and orange billed, the bird stands out in the sea of thin-necked black-billed Canada Geese. On this morning it was in the company of a dozen Canada Geese. One of the swimmers next to the chunky domestic demanded attention, however. This goose (see beginning and below) looked Canada-like in general terms but had a pinkish-orange bill, orange legs, a white bordered face, and a watered-down version of the white chin patch. The neck, while dark, was brown rather than black and the border line where it met the chest was indistinct.

The Hybrid in Question

The features of this goose were typical of a hybrid between a Canada and, dare I say it, a Domestic Graylag Goose. Such a cross is well documented in the literature. It looks like neither bird but consistently displays the features of both. The white face could come from a hidden gene in the domestic bird. It appears that our Crosswinds domestic is an intimate – really intimate – part of the gang. But, I might be jumping to conclusions with that remark. There are three possibilities here. Consideration of the truth involves a brief look at the phenomenon hybridizing geese.

Hybridization is relatively common among wild geese. Even though they are made up of many separate species, they are not far enough along on the evolutionary timeline to be completely incompatible. Genetically there are not enough barriers to prevent red-headed step children or mailman’s kids. Behavior acts as the best separator but there is evidence that many of these hybirds…er, hybrids… occur when a male of one species forces itself on the female of another. This is why we don’t go into this subject with children.

The Crosswinds hybrid can be explained as the result of a Domestic Graylag or a White-fronted Goose mating with a Canada Goose. The most common explanation is the former (and given the fact that a Graylag is present, seems the 90% answer). White-fronted X Canada hybrids are much less common in our area because White-fronted Geese aren’t common here. But it can’t ruled out. The white face and bill features are suspicious. The bill especially looks exactly like that found on immature White-fronted Geese – with a black “nail” or tip on a pale pinkish/orange beak. I’ll have to stick with the 90% answer because I can’t do a blood test.

Actually that blood test would come in handy to answer the third possible scenario. Young geese tend to hang out with other birds that look like their parents. If a goose was raised in a family with a Graylag parent, it will naturally seek the company of other Graylags later on. It is possible that this hybrid bird came from elsewhere and decided to join in with the big-butt bird at Crosswind to be with its own kind – whatever that kind is. Therefore we can’t pin the domestic Graylag as the guilty party in this child’s existence.

There, now I’ve taken a simple thing and turned it into a complicated mess. Other than bleeding the poor hybrid to death, we can only hope that somebody out there will come forward to the bench with proof that they saw the porky domestic in the company of a clutch of fuzzy young hybirds earlier in the summer. Of course, the conspiracy theories would never cease even if that happened. Rather than kill the fowl, let’s kill this blog and pretend it never happened.

A Bird In-between

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