The Geese of St Elizabeth’s
By Allan Howie
Spring is always an exciting time at St Elizabeth’s Village. Migrant birds are returning, especially raptors. Each south wind brings them in, turkey vultures, red tail hawks, the occasional eagle, swirling in the thermals. The resident Canada geese stake out their territory hoping to raise clutches of goslings. But many are stymied in this regard as the controlling forces in the management send out the local abortion society in the form of Ron, master of the swans. The thinking is that Canada geese are too numerous, so Ron visits the nests and pricks the eggs so that despite mother goose’s best efforts they will never hatch.
So be it. But there are those of us who don’t mind the geese, and look forward to seeing new life bursting out throughout the Village. Despite management’s best efforts a few of the geese manage to bring forth broods. One mated pair that succeeds each year builds their nest on the roof of the auditorium next to the Villa which houses those residents in need of nursing care. During the month of April the ladies on the fourth floor watched with great interest as mother goose incubated her eggs and the gander stood guard ready to ward off any possible intruder.
In past years when the brood hatches mother goose leads them to the edge of the roof and nudges them off one by one while the gander catches them at the bottom. Once all are safely down, goose and gander lead the family off to whichever pond they have chosen for their new home.
You can imagine that witnessing this is quite an exciting event for the ladies watching from the fourth floor.
Now, it happened toward the end of April that I had just returned from walking my dog when I saw Pam Evens, an ALS patient, one of the fourth floor ladies, coming up my walk in her motorized wheelchair. I opened the door and invited her in, but Pam said, “No, no, I can’t come in, we have a crisis.”
The goslings had hatched, five of them. Unfortunately one had got separated from the others so that when mother goose nudged her brood off the roof and joined them below, one was left running frantically to and fro on the roof. What was needed was an able bodied person who was also a nature lover to go onto the roof, rescue the young one, find the family and reunite them. I felt honored to be chosen.
Pam explained we’d have to bypass the administrator of the Villa. Pam had already explained the problem to her. She’d replied that the mother goose would return on her own to rescue the young one. This was laughable. Songbirds would return to feed a stranded chick. Mother goose once she starts on the next stage of her journey there is no going back. Firstly, she believes she has all her young. Secondly, for the next three months she and her brood are inseparable. She goes nowhere that they can’t follow. That certainly includes back to the roof of the auditorium.
No problem. We found a couple of young maintenance guys. They led me to the ladder for the roof and popped the skylight so I could get up. Once on the roof I waved to the ladies watching from the fourth floor window, ran over, caught the fledgling, put him in a bag I had brought for the purpose, gave the cheering ladies a thumbs up and headed back down the ladder.
Next step of my task I had to find the family. They had at least a twenty minute start on me. One of the maintenance guys pointed in the direction they had gone. Off I went, checking every pond as I came to it, looking for two adult geese with four little ones trailing behind. I checked pond after pond without success, the little goose in the bag peeping in terror the whole time. After I had checked every pond without result I started backtracking feeling I must have missed them somehow. It was now after 6:00PM. I had been searching for over an hour. It was a cloudy evening and darkness would soon be upon us.
What to do? As a longtime member of the Hamilton Naturalists’ Club I am familiar with some of the government bodies under Natural Resources. I returned home and called the Canadian Wildlife Services in Burlington. No luck, all I got was a recording. Next I thought, if I can keep him warm overnight and get him to eat I can resume my search in the morning. I soft boiled an egg; he wouldn’t eat it. I mixed some swan feed with wild bird seed. Still no luck, he just stared at it, crying loudly for his mother the entire time. I thought, what would my fellow naturalists tell me? The obvious answer. They would tell me, he has a much better chance with geese, any geese, than with you!
Okay, my next step was now clear. On the bank of a pond just adjacent to my house was a goose sitting on an egg that I knew would never hatch. Knowing the flock instinct of geese I was fairly certain that she and the gander would accept this little orphan. I put the gosling back in the bag, went over to the pond, and approached the nest. The goose on the nest was eying me warily. The gander came up from the pond honking angrily. I was about seven feet from the nest. I took out the gosling, placed him facing the goose and retreated to a respectful distance and watched.
It took a couple of minutes for the little guy to work his way over to mother goose. They checked each other out. The gosling had finally stopped crying so he felt safe. The goose reached out with her beak and nuzzled the gosling, seemingly checking to feel if he had feathers. Now, the little guy started pecking at something on the ground. Good, I thought, he’s found something he’ll eat. Next he moved around behind the goose and started to work his way under her wing. She allowed this to happen, so I thought, good, she’s accepted him.
Feeling some satisfaction I went back to the Villa and explained to the ladies what had happened. Not a perfect solution but the best we could manage under the circumstances. I left them happy that the little one was in good hands and promised to keep them posted on new developments.
Next morning my first task was to check on the status of the new adoptee. What would mother goose’s priority be? The egg or the new arrival? When I reached the nest she was still in it. I couldn’t see the little one but felt he was still there. I approached slowly, thinking, if you have a young one you should be heading for safety with him. At that moment she burst from the nest honking loudly and headed down the bank to the pond. I could see a yellow ball of fluff following her.
Now she was in the pond with the gosling swimming behind her and the gander taking up the rear for protection. For the next hour I watched them in the pond, moving around, behaving exactly as a family of Canada geese should. At one point a carp was splashing on the surface near the gosling and the gander took a swipe at it. Goose, gander and gosling all seemed to be following their instincts to the letter. I knew the mother would never return to the nest now.
Once again I went over to the Villa to report to Pam that our adoptee had made it through his first night and all looked good for the new family. Unfortunately that evening our area was hit with a violent spring thunderstorm with torrential rain and high winds. Our little guy could be blown away by winds or washed away by rising waters. But I trusted his new parents to safeguard him.
The following morning geese and gosling were sitting on a spot high on the bank. They were safe enough but it was still a blustery day and I wondered if the little guy was going to be able to get enough to eat. That evening I checked again and discovered that the family had moved to an adjacent pond and the little one was swimming around behind his mother.
Next morning geese and gosling were on the bank at the edge of the new pond. The gosling was between the parents and didn’t seem to be moving. When I went closer I could see that he seemed to be dead. The parents were not about to abandon him, but they had to know the truth. I climbed down the bank, scared them into the water, picked up the gosling and carried him up the hill and placed him in an open area. I felt by doing this, the geese would return to the life they had before the nest, the egg and the gosling.
I had to give Pam the bad news but before I did I should renew my search of a few days ago and try to find the little guy's original family. That way I might be able to give Pam some good news to go with the bad news.
Off I went, starting from the Villa checking each pond on my way. No luck at first, but then at one of the smaller ponds near the southern edge of the Village, there they were, goose, gander and the four little ones swimming around happily. I was overcome with guilt. Perhaps if I had searched more diligently that first day and not given up so quickly I might have reunited the little guy with his original parents and all might have ended happily. But later when I gave Pam the latest news she assured me that we had done our best under the circumstances and we had to accept that not every rescue works out perfectly.
Every day now when I walk my dog I visit the four goslings. Now that they’ve lost the brother they never knew, these guys are the new guard. We’ll keep an eye on them and hope they make it to adulthood. After all, they survived the abortion society, so maybe they’ll make it all the way.
Allan Howie is also the author of: