SOLITARY GOOSE

Sydney Landon Plum

"This is a moving and well-written account of how a woman interacts with an injured Canada goose."
Earl Rosenbloom

The most moving story about a Canada Goose!

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The Zohead

How a Canada goose changed my life, influencing even the direction of my career

By Mary Lou Simms



Zoey wards off an intruder


     To this day, I can't tell you what drew me to her.
     I was jogging around a city lake, maneuvering my way through a hazy, low-lying fog when a Canada goose -  a wispy little thing with petroleum-colored wing feathers and disheveled black tufts of fur around the neck - suddenly stepped out of nowhere.  I stopped short, as startled to see her as she was to see me. Then emerged the rest of the winged entourage: three goslings and a good-sized gander that I presumed was the mate.

     The dad, plainly not thrilled by the intrusion, began hissing.  Clearly, I was the one expected to move.  Instead I stood there like an idiot.  I'd never seen newborn goslings up close, I guess, and I seemed immobilized, unable to place one foot in front of the other.  Eventually reason took hold and I stepped aside, letting them pass.
     That chance encounter would mark the beginning of a friendship that would span the years.  I couldn't know it then but the mother in this unexpected scenario would change my life in ways I never dreamed, influencing even the direction of my career.  She would take me from journalist to activist as I strove to tell the story of the Canada goose and its tumultuous and courageous struggles to survive an often hostile urban environment.
     I liked her immediately.  Maybe it was her unerring gentleness around the babies or the way she clucked about, conscious of their every move, but a connection was born.  I kept my distance but I took some corn from a back pocket - a treat I carried for some mallard ducks - and spread it along the ground.  The mother ate greedily - hungry, I suspect - from having spent much of the previous month cradling a nest.  The babies, following their mother's lead, sampled the corn while the dad stood guard.
     I hadn't expected geese this far south.  I had moved here from the Midwest where my encounters with wild geese had been confined to watching them graze along Lake Erie after a torrential storm transformed the rye grass into something particularly palatable, at least to the geese.
     Ziggy, my Oriental short-haired cat and I, would gaze from a window, mesmerized, as the geese went after the grass like it was candy.
     Then I moved to central Alabama where I inadvertently came across about a dozen or so in a city park as I sought a place to jog.  Perhaps they reminded me of home, I don't know, but I was enthralled to find them.
     I called her Zoey - Zo, for short - or the Zohead when I was feeling particularly affectionate.  It took weeks to decide on a name - and months for her to decide to answer to it.  Wild geese aren't used to having names but eventually she came around and when she did, she went from ignoring the name completely to looking up every time I said it.  At some point, she seemed to realize that the sound was hers - and hers alone.  She was my goose and I was her human.  It was never more complicated than that.
     Within weeks, I was drawn into her world, gradually becoming swept up in the family's antics, their comings and goings, the tears and travails and the complex social structure that is an integral part of Canada geese behavior.  I came to appreciate her intelligence, the graciousness with which she went about her life and her wonderful sense of the absurd.
     From Day One, for example, she made it clear that she didn't like anything electronic.  If my cellphone went off in her presence, she would reach over and gently nip my wrist, her way of letting me know she found it annoying.  The camera was less intrusive.  It didn't suddenly let loose with a loud, jarring sound that caused one's neck feathers to stand upright.
     On days when the park became crowded, Zo would head for a cemetery on the hill, Dad (her mate) in the lead and the goslings, giving way to natural curiosity, somewhere in between.  The tombstones were their refuge; the geese themselves had become mine, solace from a wild and desperate world.  There were no iPods here, no emails, no cellphones; just silence punctuated by the occasional honk. 
     The cemetery was strategic for another reason.  From here, we could see the entire lake ...the walkways, the parking lot, the playgrounds and a chapel above the other side, without fear.
     It was also here that our conversations began.
     One day, as we sat atop the hill, I noted the sudden emergence, from a car below, of two afghans - huge, energetic, silky, beige-colored hounds prone to chasing geese.
     "Uh, oh," I said to Zo, motioning in their direction.  "The brats are here."
     "Huh!" she answered.
     And I was like, "What?  What did you say?" as I turned to her, laughing.
     "Huh!" she remarked again.
     I had often engaged in conversation with her but this was the first time I had gotten a response.
     From then on, "huh" became an integral part of our conversations.  It was like a secret word known only to us.  I had long been convinced that she could comprehend the meaning of my words anyway.  When I asked that she and her mates refrain from chasing other geese, for example, they always obliged.  Zo and Dad were good that way.  They also seemed able to read each other's minds so why would it be inconceivable that she could read mine.
     I also began noting subtle differences in their personalities.
     Zo was blessed with a natural effervescence while her mate, Dad, was as stoic as they come.  He spent the bulk of his time standing guard over the family, keeping other geese at bay.  Woe to any that inadvertently wandered near his goslings.  The back feathers would rustle in warning and if there wasn't an immediate exit, the chase was on.
     Geese are highly territorial, and chasing is part of their natural behavior.  Anyone outside the family circle is fair game.  Many times, I saw Zoey's mate rush by me at breakneck speed in pursuit of an offending goose, grateful I wasn't the target.
     Chasing other geese also seemed a necessary part of growing up.  Adults give all goslings a wide berth, apparently equating such behaviors as skills necessary to survival.  Still I had to laugh whenever I saw little Horatio, one of Zo's goslings, chase a gander a dozen times his size without fear of retribution.  No one wanted to provoke the parents.
  
     Other new families also flew in expecting confrontation.  Usually the dads would duke it out, grabbing each other's necks until one gave in.  Sometimes one would fly over the other's head, avoiding actual physical confrontation, the ritual satisfied.
     Eventually, wanting to know more about their habits, I began researching the Internet.  That was how I learned of the national conflicts surrounding urban geese.  The feds were going into locations like mine and gassing beloved community geese in the name of profit.
     I applied for a national reporting grant to investigate the agency responsible - the USDA's Wildlife Services - and six months later, began a remarkable journey that would take me to communities along the Atlantic and Mississippi flyways where the lives of thousands of community geese were at stake. 
     The results of that investigation, published by McClatchy-Tribune News Service, indicate that taxpayers are subsidizing a $126.5 million program that exterminates more than 4 million wild animals annually, including thousands of community geese like Zo and Dad. 
     Zo was responsible for that investigation.  Had it not been for her, I would have never thought to research geese or to investigate a federal agency which kills rather than help communities learn to co-exist peacefully with wildlife populations.  I'll never know how many lives we saved but it is an accomplishment of which I am immensely proud. 
     Zo influenced me in other ways.  She sharpened my perception of the natural world.  Ants, butterflies, goose feathers, blades of grass, all became cause for scrutiny.  I remember one afternoon when the goslings became enthralled by the comings and goings of a colony of red ants.  There we sat for half an hour in a kind of trance-like state watching the ants' activities.  How cool and crazy was that.
     Television also became a thing of the past.  When it came to a choice between spending Monday evening with Zo and Dad or "The Bachelor," the geese won every time.  It also occurred to me that Zo and Dad seemed more steeped in reality than the bulk of the show's contestants.
     She also lowered my blood pressure.  Canada geese are among the best stress-relievers of all time, and Zo was a genius at putting the rest of the world on hold.
     I'd be at a computer, for instance, and when the pages began to blur, walk to the lake to hang out with them.  Within half an hour, writer's block was a thing of the past.  On occasion, I'd take a blood pressure reading after being with the geese and note a drop of 10 to 15 points, prompting me to wonder if there was anything about these remarkable creatures that wasn't beneficial to the human spirit.
     Zo also became something of a celebrity at our lake as residents came to know her gentle spirit.
     Once a child of about 9 or 10 came rushing over, loaf of bread in hand.
     "Do you know where Zoey is?" she asked, breathlessly.
     "She flew out," I said.
     "Do you know when she'll be back?" the child asked.
     "No," I answered, laughing.  "The last time I saw her she was heading toward Mississippi."
     It wasn't long into the friendship before I was feeding Zo by hand.  Geese are primarily grazers, like horses and cattle, but they love the occasional treat.
     Zo liked bits of stoned ground wheat bread or handfuls of cracked corn.  My reward was the feel of that soft leathery beak against my fingers.
     One day, Zo noticed a small bag of cheese crackers stashed in a shirt pocket.
     "These aren't healthy," I said.
     "Huh," she remarked.
     Finally I pulled one out to satisfy her curiosity, never dreaming she would like it because of the cheese.
     I was wrong.
     From that day on, cheese crackers were the undeniable treat.
     Considering them junk food, I doled them out in small quantities but I carried a bag for her all the same.
     Canada geese are also a community unto themselves; their existence fraught with ceremony; territorial bickering, never-ending arrivals and departures and touching reunions.
     One evening, for example, I heard a commotion by a nearby bridge, and curious, walked over to where some of the geese had been gathering.
     There, in the dusk, I saw a pair of adult geese stationed on a small island with newborns.
     The other geese knew to keep their distance but their pleasure at the emergence of the family was obvious.  They were welcoming the new babies!
     I stood on the bridge and watched, straining to identify the adult geese in the growing dark.
     I was praying it was Zo, who'd been nesting for six weeks.  I called her name, and when one of the parents looked up and began swimming in my direction, newborns in tow, I was overcome with relief.
     "Thank God you're safe," I said, as she came to the shoreline where I was now waiting, to introduce her young.
     A friendship with a wild goose is not without qualms.  I never knew when - or even if - I'd ever see her again, and I worried incessantly about her safety during the hunting and nesting seasons.
     And then six years into the friendship, my worst fears were realized.
     She didn't come back from nesting.
     Six weeks passed, and then seven.
     I checked adjoining lakes.  Perhaps she or her mate was injured, I reasoned, and stranded somewhere.
     Eventually, her mate returned alone, and I knew she was gone.  Neither, I knew, would abandon the other unless one had died.
     I was so stunned that, for weeks, I went to the lake only to give the remaining geese their treats.  I just couldn't walk the sidewalks without feeling engulfed in sadness.  Her spirit was everywhere.
     Eventually her mate also left.  Perhaps it was too painful for him to remain here.  In geese society, the death of a mate, especially a long-term pairing, is a monumental loss.
     Three years have passed since her disappearance.
     Time was the eventual healer.  That - and the solace provided by her offspring.
     Horatio, a big strapping gander from the first clutch who turns eight this spring, is a daily visitor - and like his mother, an aficionado of cheese crackers.



Horatio

     I'll be sitting quietly and suddenly I'll sense this movement behind my back and a long neck will creep around my shoulder, inching its way to my shirt pocket, where I always keep a few crackers stashed.
     Sometimes, for a few seconds, I'll think it's Zo and then I'll remember it can't be Zo.
     The Grandparents are also still here, continuing a 10-year reign as the lake's power couple.
     Best of all, the delight that comes from just being in the presence of geese - the surprise visits, the boisterous reunions, the built-in enthusiasm - has resurfaced.
     The other day, I was feeding some 50 geese when a gander approaced with a mate and four goslings, and walked right up to me.
     He seemed unusually comfortable in my presence as he ate from my hand.  I must know at least 500 geese by name or sight, but for some reason I couldn't place him.
     I sat with the family awhile to see if it spurred any recognition.  Some time later, he began uttering a series of soft, barely definable honks, and suddenly I knew who it was.
     Zoey's mate, Dad.
     "It's good to see you," I said, in what was a bittersweet reunion.  I was delighted that he had found another mate but his presence brought back still-fresh memories of another goose - and another time.
     I reminded him of the first time he took bread from my hand.
     For ages, he had refused my offerings, preferring to keep his distance.
     Then one day I held out a piece of bread and with no prompting, he simply walked over and took it.
     "I don't believe it," I said.  "This is cause for celebration.  What has it been, three years since I've known you?"
     He didn't acknowledge my comments that day, as his former mate would have, but from off in the distance I swore I heard a barely perceptible, unmistakable "huh."  Perhaps a heaven-sent honk of approval from a beloved goose whose spirit - if not her physical presence - continues to permeate a park she once ruled.
     Even today, children still ask if I know where she is ...
 
This story won third place in non-fiction in the 2013 Alabama Writer's contest.