I know it is spring when Kitty and Chester arrive

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-117692415432696.jpg’, ‘Photo by Dr. Robert A. Hedeen’, ‘Last year, Kitty goose guards her only egg.‘);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-117692420730265.jpg’, ‘Photo courtesy of www.marwoodhillgarden.co.uk‘, ”);

It has been a long and cold winter, and as the official first day of spring rolled around, I kept looking for a sign that the worst was over. I could find none, though I guess if I had looked more closely, I might have seen tiny buds on some of the trees.

Then, about two weeks ago, I noticed that two old friends had returned, and I knew for sure spring had arrived. In the Gingerwood Section of Loves Park where I live, there are two ponds that are frequented by non-migratory Canada geese during the warm months of the year. Two of these geese are habitual guests in one of our ponds, and for the last four years have nested in the same location, and each year have produced the grand total of one gosling.

I know they are the same mated pair as the male has been injured sometime in the past, and when on land waddles around with a decided limp. I have given him the name of Chester after the character in older productions of the TV show Gunsmoke who walked with a noticeable limp. Consequently, I named the female goose Kitty after the character that owned the saloon in the TV show.

As usual, when I first noticed the birds this year, they were simply scouting out the pond for a place to build their nest. They go through the same routine each year, and finally decide on the same spot that has been used previously. This scouting around, presumably to determine if anything has changed since last year, takes several days. Almost like clockwork each year, they decide it is all right to build in the same location under the boughs of a willow tree that offers a fair degree of concealment. Work on the construction of the nest starts on the first of April, plus or minus a day or two.

The nest is constructed of grass and twigs, and Kitty lines it with soft, down feathers she plucks from her breast. By the end of the first week in April, she will have laid her egg and is sitting on the nest to incubate it. One can set his watch by the fact that on or about the first of May, the egg will have hatched. A Canada goose may lay as many as eight eggs to incubate, but for some biological reason, this pair has produced only one egg, the past four years. As I write this during the first week of April, Kitty is on the nest, but I have not dared to approach her to determine if there is only one egg again this year.

During the incubation period, she will spend 95 percent of her time on the nest. But, for a short time each day, she will leave the nest to feed, to wash and preen herself, and to take care of other bodily functions. She will carefully cover the egg with down before she leaves the nest, and her mate will move in to guard it.

After the egg has hatched in May, the pair keep the gosling under close scrutiny at all times, and for the last four years I have watched this offspring grow to maturity. In contrast, a pair of geese that produce six goslings can expect to lose about 25 percent of them before they attain adulthood.

From time to time, migratory geese present a problem in the Rockford area, and various means have been employed to reduce their numbers. Nests have been raided, and the eggs either been covered with oil to cut off a supply of oxygen to the embryo or scrambled by shaking. Special dogs have been employed to chase them away from areas frequented by the public.

If someone could determine why Kitty and Chester produce only one offspring each year, perhaps a biological method of birth control for geese could be found.

If I am being a bit anthropomorphic about this pair of geese, I hope my readers will forgive me.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

from the April 18-24, 2007, issue

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