The Swan Goose
The lake near City Hall is quiet. There are no ear-splitting honks or loud shrills to break the monotony.
The big white Asian swan goose that graced our city park for years is gone—his remains found near the cemetery he grazed, a pair of goslings by his side. He would have liked that, knowing the eight-month-old babies were there at the end.
He was the lake's resident nanny, helping two sets of Canada geese parents raise their young whether they liked it or not. Over the years, he had become almost an institution, a legend among geese, controlling both the lake and its inhabitants—human and otherwise. He was also the undisputed leader of some 200 Canada geese that flew in and out, prompting noisy reunions among avian pals that hadn’t seen each other in months.
I called him King but he was also known as the "leader" goose or "Noisy" because of his seductive, non-stop honking. Others called him the old granny because of his affinity for the young. I thought him male because his behaviors were similar to those of the ganders—protective and assertive; yet I couldn't dispute his gentleness toward the babies. Occasionally the Canada geese dads would cuff their offspring to keep them in line but the swan goose was always gentle, generously sharing his food with the goslings, if not giving it up to them entirely.
He was twice, perhaps three times the size of a Canada goose, mostly white with pumpkin-colored feet, brown wings and matching stripe down the neck and a conspicuous black bulb at the base of the bill. He seemed a domesticated version of an Asian swan goose or Chinese goose or something or other. No one knew for sure. Whatever, he was gorgeous, with an enormous following among residents. Visitors brought him treats. Children adored him. People flocked to watch him perform.
The sandbar near the bridge was his. He'd swim over, nudging off anyone not part of his entourage, then dance around like a ballerina, spreading those slow, glorious wings in some sort of celebratory rite, a dozen Canada geese cooing in chorus, an avian version of "Swan Lake ". Visitors would gather on the bridge and watch in awe.
I probably knew him better than anyone. He hung out with Zoey, a Canada goose whose behaviors I'd been studying for six years, and her mate Dad. Everyone thought their babies were his but I knew otherwise. Every spring the parents would go off to nest, reappearing several months later with day-old goslings that King would adopt. The parents knew it was futile to object. Only once do I remember an altercation. The year before last the parents apparently decided they could raise their goslings on their own and Dad and King went at it in throat-to-throat combat. The swan goose won, of course. His size alone was usually enough to dissuade any prospective combatants. However, after that, the two became steadfast friends, worth noting in light of escalated Israeli-Palestinian conflicts at the time. Two grown geese setting an example for the rest of the world. Resolve your differences and then get over it.
His origin remains a mystery. No one knew when he came to the lake—or even how—but a few people remembered him from as far back as 20 years.
He could fly but not high enough. Eventually the goslings had to fledge their wings and that meant King was left behind. He'd fly low across the lake with the family and then honk his despair when he couldn't follow them into the night. He was restless in their absence but the reunions were something to behold. Zo and Dad would begin voicing their arrival from half a mile away, and King would honk them in, swimming over in a great rush. Once I was with him on shore when they flew in. To my astonishment, the family practically landed at our feet, enveloping us both in a sea of feathers and unrestrained joy.
I was also there the day the babies flew for the first time. I knew it was coming; I just didn't know when, but late one afternoon I knew something was up when the parents began bobbing their heads in furious fashion. Suddenly the whole family left the ground in one swoop. I watched the goslings trail their parents around the lake before settling into the famous V-formation as if they'd been doing it all their young lives.
Geese are not new to me. I have stood in the middle of hundreds of both migratory and non-migratory geese and marveled at how human they are. Like us, Canada geese have an inordinate sense of family. Like us, young geese—or "juveniles," as they're called—go through a lengthy transition to adulthood, trying like teenagers to find their place in the world. And like us, Canada geese fall in love; perhaps choosing a mate more carefully than any of us because for them it really is a lifetime commitment. Canada geese males are also among the most romantic creatures on earth. American men might want to observe sometime how ganders treat their women. Every day is Valentine's Day for Zoey and other females that are part of mated pairs. Their mates hover over them, seeming to whisper sweet nothings in their ears as they brush their necks with those powerful bills. And it would seem to have little to do with sex. Despite all the goslings they're accused of siring, they mate only once a year. The rest of the year—10 months or so—is pure romance and, of course, parenting. The parents—gander and goose—raise their offspring together. Nor does anyone have to coerce the dad into performing his parental duties. The goslings are as much his as they are hers. Even now, there is a single dad at the lake whose three goslings are his pride and joy.
I had a curious relationship with the swan goose over the years. Unlike Canada geese, who adore humans they trust, he was not of that ilk. We were there primarily to satisfy his culinary needs.
I spent months trying to win him over. One day it dawned on me that he didn't like anyone towering over him, so I began getting down to his level, as you would a child. I'd kneel down to feed Zo and the goslings and eventually he'd amble over, coming so close I could reach out and touch him. It was an opportunity to observe him close up. He had such regal bearing and rare intelligence. Sometimes I'd catch him studying me with those gentle eyes whose color I could never quite discern and wonder what he was thinking.
As time went on, my affection for him grew. I also became overly protective. Several times I interrupted children who thought chasing him was fun, and once threatened to call the police if the bullying didn't stop. He seemed to comprehend my concern, and the trust between us strengthened.
Of late, he had developed a habit of coming over and standing in front to let me know he wanted Nabisco cheese crackers. Maybe it was the salt, I don't know, but they were the undeniable treat. Considering then junk food, I handed them out sparingly but I carried a box for him all the same.
Another time I arrived at the lake and finding no geese in sight, went in search of him, worried. I found him asleep by one of the tombstones and coaxed him down to the shoreline for a breakfast of cracked corn.
"C'mon, big guy," I said, affectionately, as he rose and followed.
I used to think he knew practically every Canada goose that ever flew in here.
Once, when the current babies were just a few weeks old, a huge group of geese arrived and he swam over, bellowing welcomes in that high, shrill voice.
The goslings, hearing him off in the distance, began to whimper. It didn't matter that their parents were nearby; they were lost without their nanny.
Another time he was visiting some old (geese) cronies on the lake when he heard Dad engaged in a high-spirited territorial spat with another gander. He swam back to the family at breakneck speed, barely reaching them in time for the last barrage of celebratory coos.
Over time, I was treated to the kinds of geese interactions most of us never see. Canada geese are a community unto themselves. They are completely wacko—loud, boisterous creatures—given to emotional highs and lows. Their existence is fraught with commotion, territorial bickering, daily arrivals and departures, mating rituals, community get-togethers and touching reunions.
The swan goose seemed almost identical to them in habit. Both species mate for life, thrive on vegetation and live for their young. He was like them in every way but size, color and level of noise. Somehow he managed a loudness even they couldn't match.
The memories continued to pile up over the years.
One day I was photographing several of Zo's three-week-old babies as they vacillated between sleep and silliness on shore when I noticed that the parents had disappeared. Even the nanny had vanished. I stood up, scanning the horizon, finally spotting them well beyond the bridge. They'd gone swimming!
"I guess I'm the unofficial babysitter," I mumbled to the goslings, who were by then asleep. Canada geese parents never ever leave their goslings and I knew I had been instilled with a rare trust. There were dogs, coyotes, hawks and other predators nearby; thus I would never have left the babies alone but I suspect the parents and the swan goose had long before determined that.
One afternoon I saw another side to King's character. I was hanging out with Donnie, a lone goose I had befriended after I found her wandering the cemetery alone. She had apparently been raised by humans and eventually dropped off at the lake in an attempt to reunite her with her own kind.
For weeks I'd been trying to get her into a group but in geese society that's like a miracle waiting to happen. You almost have to marry into a family of geese to become accepted. Other geese, jealous of the favoritism, were always annoying her, pulling at her tail feathers or some other such nonsense.
One day a young goose refused to stop harassing her. Finally I stood up and ordered him to leave.
"Get out!" I exclaimed, trying to suppress laughter.
My regular geese family, sunning themselves on a nearby sandbar, must have heard me raise my voice, and thinking I was in trouble, flew over and swooped down on the offender.
To my surprise, the resulting celebratory rite also centered around me. Even Donnie was included in all the cooing, and she was pretty happy about that because she wasn't used to being included in anything geese-related unless it was somebody trying to run her off. The swan goose seemed to know that Donnie was somehow connected to me. Another example of geese intelligence.
Another time King led a rescue that was for real.
I was jogging around the lake when I was attacked by a large male Muscovy duck. Muscovies are usually tame but occasionally the males become aggressive.
The duck grabbed my leg with his beak.
Hearing my cries, my geese, again sunning themselves on the sandbar, flew over, and threatened attack, chasing him off. My leg was bruised and discolored but their quick thinking prevented further injury. I saw them in a different light after that, humbled by the apparent esteem in which I was held. I told them that from that day on, there would be ample supplies of cracked corn and other treats as long as I was there.
Occasionally, as with all families, there were run-ins. Last year, when Zo returned from nesting, she swam the day-old goslings over for introductions and cracked corn. The swan goose came along, hissing his objections to my being allowed so close to the newborns.
"Who are you to object?" I asked, laughing. "They're not even your babies." Then I stood perfectly still, letting the goslings get my scent, allaying their fears and apprehensions, a tactic I had learned from observing the swan goose bond with newborns.
These were the only goslings born at the lake last year and as such enjoyed a status like no other. Grown geese are generally tolerant of gosling behavior, chalking up their antics to traits necessary for survival, but these two took their status to extremes. They chased off ganders a dozen times their size without fear of retribution. No one wanted to provoke the parents, much less the swan goose. The babies threatened their older brothers and sisters who, when they flew in, liked to hang out with their former nanny. One day, however, one of the old Muscovy hens at the lake apparently decided she'd had enough. When one of the goslings harassed her, she turned and grabbed its tail feathers and twirled it around a few times. The gosling squealed in disbelief. Amazingly, there was no interference from either swan goose or parent. Maybe they realized it was time someone enacted some desperately needed discipline. The brattiness didn't stop but I never saw the goslings bother any of the old hens again.
The swan goose wasn't always part of Zo and Dad's entourage. The first year I was here, he hung out with the lake's other set of veteran parents, The Grandparents, an ornery, cantankerous pair, and the lake's power couple. They also adored the swan goose, whom they seemed to have known forever, and the three made a formidable trio; brooking no nonsense from anyone.
The next year, the swan goose switched allegiance to Zo and Dad. The decision seemed to hinge on who emerged from the forest first with newborns. I wasn't thrilled with the change in circumstance but I realized the benefits. His massive presence made it easier to find the family and he offered the goslings added protection. The down side was that he didn't much like me, at least at first. Eventually we made peace but it was a long time coming.
I also came to the conclusion that The Grandparents had sired either Zo or Dad. I'd lay out a spread of cracked corn, for example, and if The Grandparents wanted it, Zo and Dad would simply move on, relinquishing their food. I couldn't believe they were related to the gentle Zo but her mate had a temperament that was vaguely similar.
The relationship seemed to fit. Offspring never ever disrespect a parent. Such an act would be unthinkable in geese society, even long after the young have left the nest. Any doubts I might have harbored were put to rest last year when I saw The Grandparents, who had no goslings at the time, scrutinizing Zo and Dad's newborns, looking for all the world as if they were trying to find a resemblance. I was sure then that they were Dad's parents. He would have allowed no other geese near his young.
Eventually I realized that I was treated with the same deference as The Grandparents. Somehow I had unwittingly earned a respect normally reserved for elders—a control that wielded enormous influence. I had only to make a request and it was granted. If I didn't want them to chase off a particular goose, for instance, all I need do was ask. Zo and Dad also seemed able to read my mind, just as they were able to read each other's.
The small geese community also seemed to rejoice in the arrival of newborns. There was always a big commotion when Zo and Dad brought out their goslings. The geese would circle the new family, knowing to keep their distance, but chattering and cooing with pleasure as they welcomed the day-old babies. These were always joyous occasions that sometimes lasted hours; a prime example of the sense of community fostered by Canada geese.
The swan goose also functioned as peacemaker. The two families often traveled together for safety. However, apparently the goslings from one family weren't supposed to mingle with their cousins. Given the proximity in which they traveled together, it seemed inconceivable that they could avoid crossing paths occasionally. Then one day Zo caught one of the other goslings fraternizing with one of her own and promptly chased it off, nipping its butt in the process. The baby ran off screaming.
"Zoey Marie!" I exclaimed, shocked by the behavior. Then The Grandparents, whose gosling it was, got mad. Sensing the growing friction, the swan goose immediately intervened, standing between the two sets of parents until peace was restored.
The year of the altercation with Dad was also the year of the Big Baby Brouhaha. Unbeknownst to the other parents, a third couple had nested in the forest behind the lake that spring. When they came out with four goslings, their appearance caused a mild stir. Zo, in particular, was livid. Never mind that Olivia, the young mother, was one of her own. Apparently no one else was supposed to nest in what was considered sacred territory and that was that. Young geese usually wait several years before pairing off but Olivia was barely out of the nest herself when she and Gandy became an item. New mates also usually wait another three or four years before becoming parents so the new family was another shocker.
I was afraid that King might provoke another altercation. A newcomer to the lake, Gandy didn't know the cardinal rule: that all goslings born here were also the property of the swan goose. Gandy was also a bit on the ornery side and I couldn't see him accepting another gander as part of the immediate family but he surprised me. To my knowledge there was never an altercation and as tensions eased, peace reigned supreme.
However King and I almost came to blows over another matter. One night, as the goslings were getting ready for sleep, I noticed him standing next to Zoey, whose five babies were vying for space under one wing. Zo looked as if she was about to topple over. I was laughing at the antics until I saw King lift one of his massive feet and place it on top of the burgeoning wing.
"Get off her," I said, quickly intervening. "What are you trying to do, squash the babies?"
He promptly removed the foot and I chalked it up to a show of power or an accidental move on his part. I was always afraid he might step on one of the goslings, he had such big feet, and they were so tiny, but I never thought he would do so intentionally.
However, the next night he pulled the same stunt with Olivia. She had four goslings comfortably settled in for the night, two under each wing, when King meandered over, and placing his foot on top of one of her wings, began bearing down. Olivia, whom King had also raised, looked stunned. Again I intervened, this time with a warning.
"Don't ever let me see you do that again," I said.
Given his level of intelligence, I had no doubt that he understood my meaning.
That was also the year of the fishing-hook saga. Passers-by on an early-morning stroll found the young Olivia with a fishing hook protruding from her neck.
The entire entourage was in a tizzy.
The Good Samaritans notified the police department half a block away, and an officer was sent to help.
At the same time, a parks employee was driving around when she noticed the commotion and stopped. An avian lover herself, she flew into action. She and the officer circled Olivia to prevent her escape while another employee ran back to the truck to get a pair of pliers to cut the hook. Olivia also had fishing line wrapped around her beak.
The swan goose, not realizing that help was at hand, threatened attack.
"He was coming hard," recalled the officer, "so we had to keep watch for him." Finally they grabbed the injured goose and freed her from both hook and line. Within seconds, Olivia was reunited with her mate and goslings, and the entire entourage walked off, tragedy averted.
Months after his death, the lake still isn't the same. Maybe it never will be. The goslings seem to miss him the most. Their nanny slept between them, one on either side, and some evenings I catch them looking off into the distance as if they think he's suddenly going to pop out from behind one of the tombstones. I'd give anything if I could make that happen.
Then there's The Girlfriend. She is a daughter of The Grandparents and one of two goslings King helped raise the first year I was here. In the last two years, she and King had fallen in love, and I was hoping they might eventually become lifelong mates. They'd hang out for two months while the parents nested, and last spring there was an actual attempt at mating. I could only imagine what kind of babies they'd have—and what kind of father King would make with offspring that were, at last, his own. He seemed as smitten as she but when the parents made their baby debut in the spring, he couldn't resist the newborns. As soon as Zo and Dad emerged from the forest, he joined them. The parents wouldn't allow other geese near the babies so The Girlfriend, even though she is Dad's sister, was relegated to hanging on the outskirts of the family, waiting, with more loyalty than one could imagine, for the time when she would have the swan goose all to herself again.
In time, the sadness will subside. The goslings will go back to being their bratty selves, and the dozens of Canada geese that fly in expecting reunions will cease waiting for his great bulk to appear.
But for now his spirit is everywhere. I'll be walking and suddenly hear the faint beginnings of a honk and instinctively look up, thinking it's him, and then I'll remember...it can't be him...
It is worth noting how attached we can become to a creature of the forest, one that allowed us, in this case, to observe the almost human-like interactions of wild geese—private moments between goose and gander...the extraordinary sense of family...the clamorous honking—and not feel privileged to have known this celebrated community goose if only for a while.
His was not the only death this year. In the spring, Zo didn't come back from nesting. I waited everyday for weeks, refusing to accept the inevitable. Then I found feathers strewn about the back of the park, a place where no Canada goose would go, and I knew they were hers. There must have been a skirmish with a coyote. I gathered them in my arms and took them home. Eventually Dad returned alone. He has since taken a new mate but they reside elsewhere. He visits occasionally but perhaps it is too sad for him to be here, given the many memories associated with his first love.
New life has helped ease the pain of both deaths. The Grandparents had three goslings in the spring.
Gandy and Olivia produced no young that I know of but a daughter from their clutch two years ago emerged from the forest with three goslings and no mate. Her gander must also have been killed. I think of the swan goose every time I see the babies. He would have been in his element raising these three, especially in light of an absent father. Gandy, their grandfather, has taken over some of the parenting duties and it has been interesting to observe this loving, if firm interaction.
Donnie, my little orphan, has also found a family. Gandy and Olivia, for reasons I will never be able to ascertain, have welcomed her into their fold, a favor for which they receive innumerable treats.
The Girlfriend is also still here. She remains alone although I think she knows by now that the swan goose is not coming back. I continue to bring her treats. Like her lost swain, she is an aficionado of cheese crackers.