The Idea: Bernd Heinrich’s new book will change the way you look at nature.
I‘ve written about several of biologist Bernd Heinrich‘s books before, notably Mind of the Raven, Winter World and Why We Run. His latest book The Geese of Beaver Bog is less scientific than these previous works, more of a personal memoir, or even a love story. It is the anecdotal record of four years observing the Canada Geese in the bog system near his Vermont home. With painstaking effort, Heinrich learned to recognize goose individuals by their facial markings, and then by their behaviours. This began inadvertently when he suddenly became the step-parent of Peep, a gosling that had been hatched by the penned geese of Heinrich’s neighbour. It continued for four years as each year Peep returned ‘home’ to Beaver Bog, and introduced and acclimatized Heinrich to more of the geese in her ‘flock’. I won’t spoil the heart-warming and astonishing end of the story. What I want to do in this article is tell you some of the remarkable learnings and discoveries that Heinrich made by observing Peep and her ‘family’.
- Geese do not, contrary to myth, mate for life. They are wedded to place, not to individual partners. Each year they return to the breeding area they know best, and a battle ensues for the right of parentage. Each large area that provides appropriate safety and food for the vulnerable three-week nesting period is permitted only one, or occasionally two, breeding pairs. These pairs are selected partly on a first-come basis, but sometimes altered by strength battles. Geese clearly recognize and show affection to previous mates, but ‘mate-swapping’ depending on the vagaries of migration is common, and possession is 9/10s of the law. The area they fiercely protect against other pairs and individuals from early Spring until the newborns are hatched is large enough to accommodate and feed many breeding pairs, but geese somehow know not to overbreed, and the areas are large enough to keep the overall abundance and the ecosystem balance intact.
- Geese may ‘play-nest’ when they’re two years old, but generally do not incubate the 2-3 eggs they then produce. By their third year they’ve learned how to make and protect the nest, and, if they survive the battle for parentage rights, will produce 5-6 eggs with a remarkably high survival rate. If they lose the right to be breeding pair, they continue their migration, looking for unused or challengeable sites further North, and failing that the non-breeding couples simply party all summer long, childless, in the sub-arctic areas where predators are few and far between. The route South for the Winter is the same, with stopovers to check out familiar spots, and then in the Spring the race of the survivors resumes for the choice spots and the selection of the next year’s breeding pairs. It is not inconceivable, therefore, that some of the breeding pairs could be incestuous.
- As soon as the goslings are able to swim and walk (days after birth), Heinrich discovered to his astonishment, the huge nesting area is abandoned, and the breeding pair and the goslings make the arduous and dangerous overland trek to the Summer feeding area, often miles away. This area is selected for its openness, the ability to see predators coming from far away, and is much different from the well-hidden and enclosed nesting area. Somehow geese scope it out in advance, and there, after fighting fiercely over the larger nesting area, usually form community with other. The resulting ‘superfamily’ communities often contain 4-6 adults and 11-21 goslings. It is not at all uncommon for ‘excess’ adults, not needed to protect the goslings (who are self-feeding from birth) to ‘drop off’ their goslings in the Summer feeding area and join the bachelors in the safer sub-arctic for the Summer. So when you see these communities, with a dozen or more little yellow goslings closely and obediently following their elders, not only are they not a single ‘family’ in any sense, the goslings’ parents may not even be present.
All of these behaviours, encoded in goose DNA, are selected for in evolutionary terms to ensure the safety, survival, and success of the species as a whole, and sustain the balance and integrity of the multiple ecosystems of which they are a part. We have much to learn from them.
The community in which I live has three regular ‘superfamily’ sites where a few weeks from now we will again see these noisy and adorable communities, who are so accustomed to our community that they know we will stop our cars and wait for the long waddling rows to cross the road in front of us, and who have no fear of us or our dogs. I’m on my way outside now to check out a prime nesting site (an island on ‘our’ pond).