By Allan Howie
Gertie at the Aviary pond
Gertie was the first resident I met when I moved to St Elizabeth village in 2007. On my first day there a friend and I were walking our dogs. We stopped at the Aviary to look at the exotic birds. As we were leaving a Canada goose came running across the grass at us flapping its wings. Thinking it didn’t want us there we started to veer away but the goose turned out to be friendly and totally unafraid of the dogs. It nuzzled them with its beak and they didn’t know what to make of this strange behavior.
Nor did we. After a minute or so we turned and headed for my new home, but soon noticed that the goose was following right behind us. As we turned onto my street I worried that the goose might get hit by a passing car so I turned and made shooing gestures trying to get her to return to the vicinity of the Aviary. No luck. The goose was sticking to us like glue. When we reached the house the goose followed us right up the path and would have come inside if we’d let her.
No sooner were we inside than my doorbell rang. How odd! My first day here and I didn‘t know a soul in the Village. Did this goose know how to ring doorbells?
When I opened the door a lady was standing there with the goose right beside her. She explained that the goose belonged to Jim, a Village employee, who had raised it from an egg, and that she had called Jim who was coming to get it.
Okay, mystery solved. When the goose came out of the egg the first thing it saw was Jim, so that was what it concluded it was and was destined to spend its life trying to flock with humans. When wildlife people hatch an abandoned egg they make sure they have an adult of the species or else a convincing replica such as a puppet for the chick to see as soon as it emerges. That way the chick knows what it is. Honest mistake on Jim’s part, but bad luck for the goose.
Sure enough a few minutes later one of St Elizabeth’s trucks pulled up. I could hear the driver whistling and then the goose started following the truck as it made its way slowly back to the Aviary.
In the days that followed I met Jim. He explained how one of his sons had brought home an egg and they had kept it warm till it hatched. The gosling ate what was left of the egg then when they took him outside to the backyard pond he started pecking at seeds they had put down and soon was finding his own food. They had a small white dog like mine and as the gosling grew he became friends with the dog since both spent most of their time in the yard together. In spring of the following year Jim brought the goose to St Elizabeth’s where he thought it would happily make itself one of the resident geese. That hadn’t happened of course, so I explained imprinting to Jim, telling him why it hadn’t happened, nor would it ever happen because the goose in its own mind was one of us.
Jim and his family had named the goose Gordie. But because I was convinced the goose was female, I decided she should be Gertie. So from that point on the goose was Gordie or Gertie depending on who was talking about it.
Gertie wasn’t entirely alone here. She had her support system. Jim kept an eye out for her. And now I did. Then there was Ron, the master of the swans, who looked after our domestic swans as well as the birds in the Aviary. I had met Ron by this time and the three of us had discussed Gertie and agreed that this was the one place she was safe. Had Jim taken her to a city park with other geese, her chances would not have been good at all. She would walk up to anyone, and in such a way that it could be mistaken for an attack. All it would take would be the wrong group of teenagers and Gertie could be injured or killed. Nor did she have sense of wild geese to head for the water in the presence of predators. Did she even recognize predators? She seemed not to. She liked dogs. A coyote, or fox, or pit bull running free would make short work of her.
For the time being she was safe, but her world here was changing too. Ron told us how the management was planning to disband the Aviary. The exotic birds would be sold and the enclosure would eventually be torn down. It just wasn’t certain exactly when this would happen.
While Ron, Jim and I were looking out for her, she wasn’t necessarily a welcome pet among many of the other residents. In a society where Canada geese are sometimes regarded as nuisance birds and in a community where almost everyone is elderly not everyone understood Gertie. Ron told us he was always getting complaints from people about being “attacked by that goose!” So we were generally trying to explain to people that Gertie was no real threat. However, there was always the danger that a frightened lady trying to escape from Gertie might fall and injure herself, so Ron in the process of finding buyers for the exotic birds was also looking around for a buyer for Gertie. Ron felt Gertie belonged in a petting zoo or a barnyard setting, so Jim and I hoped that something like that could be found.
Each morning when I walked my dog Champ, I would see Gertie. Usually she’d be grazing near the Aviary. When she’d see me she’d always approach and we’d socialize a bit. When I continued my walk sometimes she’d tag along but generally she wouldn’t stray too far from the Aviary. On my return she’d sometimes follow me home, but I didn’t worry about it because I knew she’d eventually return to the Aviary.
Gertie could fly but she seldom did. Evolution had given her the abilities for flight. She’d learned on her own, but I only ever saw her fly for short distances, and never more than about four feet off the ground.. Never having had goose parents she’d never learned from them, never made that thrilling maiden flight, never joined other geese in that magnificent vee formation a thousand feet above the earth. It was a little sad. Like Popeye, the duck who thought he was a goose, Gertie was caught between two worlds, never truly part of either.
The months passed. I walked my dog, watched my birds and studied my geese, Gertie especially. Even when other geese were close by, she paid them little mind. That year we got snow at the end of October. The geese had to struggle to find grazing areas and I worried about Gertie, even though I knew Ron and Jim were looking out for her. I looked for her every day on my walks. One day I didn’t see her at her usual spot but all was well. I checked the Aviary enclosure. Most of the cockatoos and parakeets had been sold. The peacocks, doves and a flock of chickens were still there along with a male whooper swan who had recently lost his mate. When I approached the enclosure I heard a loud honking and Gertie came hurrying over to greet me. I scratched around in a sheltered area to find her some grass to feed to her through the wire. She took it hungrily, though Ron had already scattered lots of feed for the inhabitants. The feeding of grass was mainly a social event for both of us.
Gertie and her buddy, the whooper.
So I could relax. Gertie was safe for the winter. Every day when I walked Champ I stopped and visited with her. Found some grass and fed her through the wire. As the months passed, the peacocks, doves, and other birds had been sold. Gertie’s only company in the Aviary were half a dozen chickens and the whooper swan who generally kept to himself. Ron fed them every day and I know Jim stopped by to visit too.
Spring came early in 2008. Now there was a new plan. Gertie still needed a permanent home, so Jim was going to take her. Ron would show Jim how to clip her wings every three months or so, and she’d be back home with her original family.
It seemed like a good plan. When I walked Champ I still stopped by the Aviary. The chickens were now the only residents. They had gotten used to me feeding Gertie and would show up for the leftovers. So I’d pay them a short visit, feed them some grass and some bread crumbs. The whooper was now in the Aviary pond. I’d often stop by the bank to visit him, thinking he must be lonely but he’d never approach.
One day during my walk past the Aviary pond there was a lone goose in the pond. This was not unusual; local geese often landed there but usually in groups. This goose, though, as soon as it saw me started honking loudly and swam like mad for the bank. Gertie was back! Champ and I went down, I found some grass and started feeding her. It was quite a reunion.
Later that day I saw Jim. The plan hadn’t worked out too well. Gertie had been returned to the backyard pond along with the dog and for a week or so everything was fine, but Gertie as was her habit would follow the dog everywhere. They had a pet door so the dog could get in and out, and when the family was out the dog would sometimes go back inside and Gertie would follow him. The dog was housebroken but Gertie wasn’t, so on more than one occasion they returned to quite a mess. Jim’s wife wasn’t too happy so Jim agreed to return Gertie to St Elizabeth’s.
For the moment everything was okay, but during the next couple of months the chickens in the Aviary were sold and the electricity and water in there were shut off, preparatory for shutting the place down. This meant that come winter Gertie would have no winter home. Jim and I told Ron we’d do whatever necessary to get Gertie through the winter, but Ron said it just wasn’t practical; he was looking around for someone to buy her. He already had a prospective buyer for the whooper in Vancouver where there was a female who needed a mate.
Throughout the summer I would stop and visit Gertie every day in the aviary pond. She and the whooper had become inseparable, as though the whooper, lacking a mate had decided to make Gertie a substitute mate, and Gertie seemed to be going along with it. I was happy for them.
Each morning when Champ and I approached the Aviary pond Gertie would see us and set up a tremendous clamor, honking like mad and swimming at top speed across the pond to meet me on the bank where I’d feed her and the whooper some grass and maybe a handful or two of swan feed. It was quite a welcome, one that a true goose lover could appreciate.
But eventually the inevitable had to happen. One Saturday morning when we approached the pond all was silent. No sign of Gertie. The whooper was swimming around alone. I wondered if something had happened to her, but I felt, no, she’s been sold.
On Monday morning I saw Jim when he arrived for work and told him Gertie was gone. We found Ron who told us she’d been sold. The new owner came for her early Saturday morning.
St Elizabeth’s has never really been the same without Gertie. A few weeks later the whooper was sold, so at least he got a proper mate out of the deal.
Jim and I still talk about Gertie from time to time. The story is that she’s been sold a second time since she left here. We think she’s still somewhere in the area so I check out petting zoos when ever I get the chance. No luck so far. But I feel someday I’ll find a goose that likes people, and if it’s Gertie I’ll know right away. And I know she’ll know me too.
Allan Howie is also the author of: