Last week we stood on the boardwalk at Cherokee Lake and watched two families of Canada geese gliding across the water, feeding on tender at the edges, all the time in perfect formation. I couldn’t help noticing a few similarities to human families. Could it be they get their pointers from the same Creator?
About once a week Charles and I go to Thomasville to deliver two hundred completed masks and pick up more for our team to sew. We make a fun excursion out of the errand, usually taking the opportunity to walk the mile around Cherokee Lake. We have always enjoyed watching Canada geese–flying in formation over our house from one lake to another, grouping in their black and white on the shores, flying in for such dramatic entries onto the water. But this time of the year is the best when the goslings are newly hatched. On that recent visit to Cherokee Lake we saw goslings out with their parents learning how to forage, how to follow directions, how to swim away across the lake staying together as a family.
The first family of geese was made up of the gander, the goose, and six downy teenage goslings. The second family had only five goslings and they were very young. I wished I could pick one up and feel its soft golden feathers but I knew that if I were so stupid as even to try such a thing I would be attacked viciously by both parents.
As we watched, the first family glided smooth as silk under the bridge where we were standing and went straight to the grassy shore. One goose was in front and one behind, consistently the same ones. We decided the one in front with the longer neck was the gander. He seemed always to be in charge, the goslings in a row behind him, then the goose swimming at the end of the line. On the shore, the goslings went greedily to work feeding on tender water grass while the parents stood guard, one on either side of their gaggle. Those parents were so alert.
The second family came quietly along crossing the water so effortlessly. They, too, swam under the bridge and the gander chose a different shore landing where they wouldn’t invade the first family in their feeding place. As the others had done, these parents stood watch over their young, necks stretched in alertness, one on either side of the foraging goslings. When it was time to move on, the gander gave a command in goose language that was quickly obeyed and all the family took to the water again.
Canada geese are some of the fowl that mate for life, or so I’ve read. (By the way, I always thought they were Canadian geese until some authoritative source made it clear they are Canada geese, a common name for Branta canadensis, not necessarily from Canada.) We were blessed to have a pair nest at our Pinedale pond years ago. As different ones of us went to stay with my mother who was in declining health we focused a lot of attention on the pair of geese and their nest. Someone, somehow, looked in the nest before the gander could attack and said there were three eggs.
Mamma enjoyed more than any of us the prospect of the eggs hatching, though she couldn’t go to the pond and see them. She loved to hear reports of how faithfully and zealously the goose parents watched their nest. Finally the eggs hatched and phone lines buzzed with the news as if a new heir to a kingdom had been born. Unfortunately, there were some mighty hungry and aggressive turtles in that pond so only one of the three downy goslings survived and he only lasted a couple of months. We were all so disappointed but still the goose and gander had each other, at least for a time.
We don’t know what happened to the gander but one day he was swimming with his mate making rippled reflections in the water. The next day she alone was there. We saw her swim around and around the small pond, then walk the shore, as if she were hunting for her sweetheart. After a few weeks she disappeared too. We found no pile of feathers so the hope was that she flew to another pond where other geese congregated. Did she really never mate again, never have more cute little goslings?
Watching those geese with their young at Cherokee Lake, I shuddered at the thought of the dangers they face. The predators of geese listed in a National Geographic article are such as eagles, coyotes, man, even skunks. But at this lake, as at our Pinedale pond, they also include turtles. There are a lot of turtles and they can sneak up from below and grab unsuspecting goslings by the legs. No wonder those geese are so protective of their young.
The next time we went to the lake I looked for those two families. I saw the family of five goslings. This time they were obviously a week older. Still, the young swam in a row with the gander in front and the goose behind. But this time one gosling dropped back and was swimming behind the mama, as if beginning to want his freedom. Watch out for turtles, little gosling! The family of older goslings seemed to be separated so we could hardly pick them out. The teenage goslings were experimenting life on their own.
As geese watch so carefully over their young, so do humans. The natural leader of the family is the father who may bark orders to the “gaggle” behind him, or more likely in their rooms, down the street, or trying out the refrigerator. The mother is like a bookend making sure the flock minds their manners and keeps their feathers preened (and their teeth brushed). There is an orderliness in the family when each knows his or her place. But sometimes, with the best of instructions from parents, one young one may creep out of safety, lag behind, try its freedom before it is quite ready to face danger. The little ones follow along observing every move their parents make. The older ones begin to try their own choices.
That family picture I took was a moment in time. Next time I see them those teenagers may be handsome beautiful geese with long sleek necks, strong legs, and sleekly perfect wings, all dressed up in black and white. Next year they may be the ones shepherding their young.