Canada geese are familiar enough birds around lakes and town parks, and there are usually a dozen or so on the boating lake in Liverpool’s Sefton Park. But, back in the spring a pair settled on the upper reaches of the Jordan stream that flows down through the park. Very soon it was clear that the female was incubating eggs on the island in the stream, and at the beginning of June three goslings had hatched.
Though Canada geese are a familiar enough sight, no-one could remember a pair successfully rearing young in Sefton Park. So it was interesting to watch their development, and the behaviour of the parents, as the weeks went by.
Canada geese are native to North America, where they are migratory, but since being introduced to Britain in 1665 as an addition to the waterfowl collection of King Charles II at St. James’ Park, they have developed a permanent residence and remain here all year round. This pair first came to my attention sometime in April, and, passing by on the daily dog walk, I soon noticed that the famale was safely ensconsed on a nest on the island in the stream. A female Canada lays up to five eggs in a nest which is little more than a shallow scrape in the ground, lined with feathers and soft vegetation. She incubates the eggs for up to 30 days while the male stays near.
As May turned to June the tiny goslings made their first appearance. Newly hatched (top), the goslings looked much like ducklings with yellow and gray feathers and a dark bill. Within a week they had grown to be rather awkward-looking, fuzzy grey birds. They grew at an astonishing rate – compare the two photos above, taken a fortnight apart.
But what has been even more remarkable has been the devoted behaviour of the parents who never leave their goslings unguarded. The male bird, especially, is always alert, long neck raised, looking and listening for any approaching threat. The five birds are never more than a few yards from one another.
The adult pair could often be seen standing their ground and facing up to a dog that ventured too close. Canada geese are not especially aggressive birds, but they can be when protecting their young. Dramatic evidence of this is seen in this Daily Mail report of a YouTube clip that shows a fierce battle between a protective bird and an office worker who strays too close to his nest in a public park in Ontario. The clip shows the lengths to which one of these birds will go to protect their partners and young.
Numbers of Canada geese in Britain remained low until the 1950s when they started to increase significantly. There are now estimated to be as many as 100,000 Canada geese resident in the UK, with around 190,000 wintering here from homes in the Arctic.
Canada geese are found on large inland bodies of water such as lakes, reservoirs and large ponds; as well as on seashores and rivers. They are grazers, not fishers so are often found on grassland. Their diet consists of plant material such as roots, tubers, shoots and leaves. As for humans eating them, Canada geese are reputedly amongst the most inedible of birds.
As their numbers have grown across the UK, Canada geese have come to be regarded as pests in some areas where they congregate in large numbers and cause damage. A large flock, defecating every few minutes, can deposit a great deal of excreta. The geese can be responsible for extensive fouling of lawns and other grassy areas, footpaths and lakes, causing an unpleasant nuisance. The droppings contain bacteria that may be harmful if fecal matter is inadvertently swallowed.
There has been argument and controversy over culls carried out in some places – and planned culls, such as a plan to kill 200 Canada geese on Lake Windermere earlier this year which has now been abandoned. There, local landowners complained the birds were eating crops and polluting the water. But when the move was condemned and a campaign launched to save them, experts reconsidered their decision. There are effective and humane methods of controlling Canada geese populations, including egg pricking or egg substitution.
A typical Daily Mail rant labelled Canada geese as ‘the most loathsome bird in Britain’ and went on to cast them as ‘unwelcome immigrants … winged thugs … lounging around all day doing nothing, claiming every welfare benefit in the book, driving their neighbours out of town and notching up ASBOs around the clock’.
By nine to ten weeks old, the goslings had grown their flight feathers and look like slightly smaller versions of the adult. By the beginning of August, they were barely distinguishable from their parents.
Canada geese usually pair for life, and have been known to pine to death at the loss of their mate, recalling the ‘Out of the Cradle’ section of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. A young boy watches a pair of mockingbirds nesting on the beach near his home, and marvels at the bond that binds them. One day the female bird fails to return. The male stays near the nest, calling for his lost mate. The male’s cries touch something in the boy:
When the snows had melted—when the lilac-scent was in the air, and the fifth-month grass was growing,
Up this sea-shore, in some briers,
Two guests from Alabama—two together,
And their nest, and four light-green eggs, spotted with brown,
And every day the he-bird, to and fro, near at hand,
And every day the she-bird, crouch’d on her nest, silent, with bright eyes,
And every day I, a curious boy, never too close, never disturbing them,
Cautiously peering, absorbing, translating.
Shine! shine! shine!
Pour down your warmth, great Sun!
While we bask—we two together.
Winds blow South, or winds blow North,
Day come white, or night come black,
Home, or rivers and mountains from home,
Singing all time, minding no time,
While we two keep together.
Till of a sudden,
May-be kill’d, unknown to her mate,
One forenoon the she-bird crouch’d not on the nest,
Nor return’d that afternoon, nor the next,
Nor ever appear’d again.
And thenceforward, all summer, in the sound of the sea,
And at night, under the full of the moon, in calmer weather,
Over the hoarse surging of the sea,
Or flitting from brier to brier by day,
I saw, I heard at intervals, the remaining one, the he-bird,
The solitary guest from Alabama.
Blow! blow! blow!
Blow up, sea-winds, along Paumanok’s shore!
I wait and I wait, till you blow my mate to me.
Yes, when the stars glisten’d,
All night long, on the prong of a moss-scallop’d stake,
Down, almost amid the slapping waves,
Sat the lone singer, wonderful, causing tears.
He call’d on his mate;
He pour’d forth the meanings which I, of all men, know.
Yes, my brother, I know;
The rest might not—but I have treasur’d every note;
For once, and more than once, dimly, down to the beach gliding,
Silent, avoiding the moonbeams, blending myself with the shadows,
Recalling now the obscure shapes, the echoes, the sounds and sights after their sorts,
The white arms out in the breakers tirelessly tossing,
I, with bare feet, a child, the wind wafting my hair,
Listen’d long and long.
Listen’d, to keep, to sing—now translating the notes,
Following you, my brother.
Walt Whitman’s poetry was a great influence on Ai Weiwei’s father, Ai Qing. Silenced by Mao’s regime for 21 years, from 1957 to 1978, Ai never lost his respect for Whitman, deepened by what Ai saw as a mutual concern for the afflicted, the poor, the weak, and the voiceless. It was during this period that Ai wrote a poem of similar delicacy and sympathy for a bird in pain, ‘Water Birds’, which describes the injury of a bird by a hunter while the mate flees in fright, leaving the injured bird struggling on its own to gain a hiding place amid crevices of stones, sadly and hopelessly waiting for the return of its companion:
At the moment
Amidst crevices of stones
With its own beak
The bird caressed its wound,
And in its sorrowful moaning of solitude
Expecting the return of its soul mate.
Two years ago, we experienced our own local tragedy when a female swan in Sefton Park was attacked by a dog and died as a result of her injuries. The male swan remained, attentive to the needs of their six cygnets.
Yesterday the geese were gone. After months of seeing them, always within a few yards of the spot where the female had sat patiently on the eggs, their absence seemed to leave a melancholy silence. Where did they go? If these geese were in Canada or the northern United States, in the autumn, as soon as the young were strong enough for the journey, they would begin their migration south to the southern states or Mexico. The young learn the migration route from their parents and follow the same paths north and south in subsequent years.
But the Canada Geese in Britain are, in the main, sedentary birds. They don’t migrate, but soon after their young can fly they move a short distance to join up with a larger flock nearby. They spend much of the year in large flocks but disperse when they need to find breeding sites where they can raise their young. This pair probably left a flock somewhere nearby in the spring and identified the Jordan stream with its secluded little island as a suitable place to breed.
Most recoveries of ringed Canada Geese in Britain have found that the individuals concerned were within about 30 miles of the place where they were originally caught (although some do move further – including some quite long distance movements within Britain to join flocks, and a few movements to the continent).
But there are geese that pass through the British Isles on migration routes that bring them south from the Arctic. According to the RSPB around 700,000 geese arrive in the UK from overseas every year. The geese travel thousands of miles from their breeding grounds across the Arctic circle, Scandinavia, Canada and Greenland. They migrate here to escape the harsh weather and to feed on salt marshes, estuaries and farmland. England hosts extremely large flocks of migrating geese across various sites. One of the most notable of these is in the north-west at Martin Mere, twenty miles north of Liverpool. There, overwintering flocks of Pink-footed Geese, usually around 20 to 30,000 strong, arrive from late September through to mid-October. Martin Mere also hosts a smaller population of Greenland white-fronted geese.