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Ordinary Canada geese make a holiday special

The Canada goose has become so common that it is almost a clich?. Golfers dislike it because it messes their courses. Birders dislike it because it is noisy and nervous and alerts all of the natural world to any intrusion. For most people, it's b...

Mike Jacobs
Mike Jacobs portrait for Always in Season column

The Canada goose has become so common that it is almost a cliché.

Golfers dislike it because it messes their courses.

Birders dislike it because it is noisy and nervous and alerts all of the natural world to any intrusion.

For most people, it's become part of the landscape.

Yet the Canada goose retains its potential to inspire awe.

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That is what happened for Suezette and me on Thanksgiving morning, when we drove to Fordville Dam. The dam and its reservoir are at the northern edge of Grand Forks County, just a short drive from our place west of Gilby, N.D.

Fordville Dam offers amenities for birds and people alike, but it is exposed to the north and west, and it is not a good place for a hike on a windy day.

Thanksgiving morning was windless, though, and we enjoyed a good long hike, all of it in the company of geese.

Counting a crowd of geese is always difficult, but I'd guess there were 500 or so when we arrived about 10 a.m. Some of them were floating on open water, but others were settled on the ice. Although a good-sized goose can weigh 6 pounds or more, the ice was thick enough to support them. It even occurred to me that some had become frozen in and might become food for eagles later in the season.

The geese were clearly nervous and clearly aware of us. Whatever intelligence governs their behavior kept them settled in the reservoir, however. We walked along the road across the dam listening to the din of their warning calls -- but without alarming them to take flight.

Perhaps they were tired.

They'd set down to rest, and only dire emergency would spook them enough to send them flying off.

This idea was reinforced as the morning progressed and wave after wave of geese settled into the reservoir. Each successive arrival was greeted with a cacophony of calling from the geese already on the water. It was almost as if the geese recognized the newcomers, called them in and welcomed them.

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The arrivals came from the northeast and first appeared at fairly high altitude. This supports the notion that they were long-distance migrants rather than local birds.

While they were scarcely visible, the birds began a glide toward the water. As they approached, they began to tumble, turning rapidly from side to side.

I can't be sure if any turned a complete somersault. I asked Suezette, and she wasn't certain either.

Both of us were struck by the noise of the wind through the wings of the tumbling birds. It was both completely natural and somehow unearthly, appropriate to the circumstances but unexpected.

This was not our first experience of Canada geese settling into open water. Once, camping at Lake Bronson State Park in northwestern Minnesota, we listened to geese settling into the lake there. It was a memorable experience for both of us.

We've seen snow geese tumble to join flocks of their fellows feeding in fields.

But we'd never been so close and heard so distinctly this extraordinary noise the geese made as they tumbled out of the sky.

Nor was this their only aerodynamic trick.

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Once they reached what must have been an appropriate altitude, the birds righted themselves and stroked their wings to propel themselves forward. Then, just as we thought they'd chosen not to put into the reservoir, they banked sharply in an S-curve and then dropped into the water.

That's how the space shuttle lands, Suezette remarked. She works at UND's Space Studies Department and has watched nearly every shuttle landing.

Like the shuttle, the geese launched a projectile to increase drag. For the shuttle, this would be a drag parachute. For the geese, it is a pair of feet.

The geese didn't always land smoothly.

There were a few crash landings, though not many. Most of the geese needed a length of ice or water to perfect a landing, a kind of runway, if you will.

I saw only one crash landing.

This spectacle of geese lasted more than an hour. The number of geese on the lake had doubled by the time we left about noon, just when the wind came up.

Jacobs is publisher and editor of the Herald.

Related Topics: ALWAYS IN SEASONMIKE JACOBS
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