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The rite of spring

July 1, 1993

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-114487041016614.jpg’, ‘Photo by Dr. Robert A. Hedeen’, ‘A mated pair of Canada geese inspect the bank of Loves Park for a nesting site.’);

No matter, if about the middle of March each year the temperature is below freezing, and the ground is covered with snow, a strong instinct to perpetuate the species arises in our population of resident Canada geese. The first step in the process is the pairing of the male and female, preferably between two geese that chose one another in previous years.

The banks of the two small lakes in the Gingerwood subdivision of Loves Park where I reside is a favorite spot for several pairs of nesting geese, and this gives me the opportunity to watch the process at close range. I observed the pairing process about the ides of March this year, the same general time as previous years.

By the first week in April, the mated pair will have decided on a spot on the bank to build the nest, and frequently it is in the same location as it was last year when they successfully raised their brood. Nest construction is left largely to the goose, with incidental help from the gander, and is made largely of grass lined with down feathers the female plucks from her breast.

When the nest is completed, usually five to nine eggs are laid, and the rather long incubation period begins. One goose nesting at one of our ponds last year laid only one egg, but I was glad to see that she and her mate were not offended, and they nurtured the single through the critical hatching process to the point where the gosling was able to fend for itself and join other newcomers to the population.

During the rather long incubation period, the gander religiously guards the nest with the goose sitting stoically upon it. He seems fearless in this endeavor, and I have seen a gander charge a dog that approached the nest and appeared to threaten it.

About once a day, the goose will leave the nest to feed and to wash and preen her-self in the nearby water. During this approximately 30-minute absence from her maternal duties, the gander takes over for her by sitting on the nest. I have noted on several occasions that, before the goose leaves for her daily ablutions, she covers the precious eggs with more down and dried grass, as if she did not entirely trust her mate to do an adequate job of keeping the potential offspring warm.

Sometime during the first 10 days of May in our area, all of the eggs will hopefully hatch, though one occasionally notes one or two were apparently infertile. A 100 perent hatch rate is the usual order of the day. The young goslings are watched carefully for a couple of days as they learn to navigate with their webbed feet on solid ground. The parents never let them wander any distance from them. At night, the gaggle of goslings is herded back into the nest and covered by the goose’s warm body during the night.

After a few days, the young ones are introduced to the water, with one of the parents sometimes having to nudge a reluctant offspring into the water for the first time. When swimming, the goose heads the single line of goslings behind her with the gander bringing up the rear and carefully watching for any attack from a potential predator. By mid to late summer, the flight feathers have formed on the new generation, and then they are more or less on their own.

Opinions of our local population of Canada geese vary greatly; either you love them or hate them. It is certainly true that when the population increases exponentially, they can be of considerable nuisance. Birds excrete the nitrogenous wastes of their metabolism in the form of uric acid in the feces, and this substance can damage the grass in yards and on golf course greens. Efforts at goose population control in the Rock River Valley, such as oiling the eggs to suffocate the embryos, have apparently been successful. Though I have not made even a semi-scientific survey of the resident goose population, my impression is that there are far fewer of them in this area now than there were a few years ago.

Some individuals have advocated an open hunting season on this magnificent bird, but I am sure those of us who like to watch the drama of nature unfold each year would vigorously oppose such a drastic idea.

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 12-18, 2006, issue

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