The Canada geese have returned to Montana and in honor of these always curious,
and sometimes shy birds,
we've written a short essay.
WE ALL HONK
“Honk, honk, hooooonk!” go the geese.
Obnoxious. As I walked along the river, my peaceful morning constitutional was rudely interrupted by a gaggle of honking, snorting, flapping geese. Having nothing to fear from me, their reaction seemed to say more about their personalities than about my presence. And it surely wasn’t the first time I’d seen this—as I child I remember feeding bread to the ducks with my parents and being pulled safely away from the chaos as the Canada geese approached. You don't mess with some birds. Honk, honk, honk.
As an adult, I had merely accepted that geese are obnoxious, loud, aggressive, and seemingly fearless, regularly chasing after humans several times their size and at least as smart. Geese were beautiful, especially when flying in their iconic V pattern during migration, and the contrast of black and white on their heads was dramatic in a world composed primarily of shades of grays and browns. But the positive assessments ended at their physical form as their mannerisms seemed more like those of a spoiled child on the edge of a tantrum than nobel or majestic.
As members of my beloved avian kingdom, they had earned a baseline level of respect, but these malcontents had no special place in my heart like the graceful osprey, patient herons, or playful nuthatches. Having circumvented this gaggle of criminals, I continued my walk along the river. My phone buzzed but, noticing it was my typically angry grandmother, I quickly and shamefully slid the phone back in my pocket. Ahead I viewed a somewhat more serene scene involving another gaggle of geese, as a pair of adults negotiated the swift current of the Clark Fork River with six young goslings between them. Moving in unison like a loose spring anchored on both ends, the group moved through the current carefully. As one gosling lagged behind, the rest slowed; as one was caught in the current and pulled to one side, the others followed so that the imaginary spring connecting them never became too stretched, never broke. It was mesmerizing, like watching a tightrope walker move forward and back, left and right, always depending on compensatory physics to keep from moving too far in any direction. In this case compensatory physics was governed by the two attentive adults. Honk, honk, honk.
The sharp piercing call of a red-tailed hawk broke my trance and I looked skyward. In addition to the hawk, a pair of vultures circled overhead, and a young bald eagle cruised above the hawk and vultures. The four flying birds were soon joined by a fifth and sixth, flying too high to identify. As I looked back toward the river I saw the imaginary spring connecting the family of geese draw tighter as they sensed the growing threat above them. One gosling, caught in a small line of swift water flowing between two rocks, was pulled away from the family but the spring held and the remaining geese drifted quickly to surround the struggling child. Honk, honk, honk shrieked one of the parents—a warning to the gosling, to the circling birds of prey, or both. The swimming of the parents intensified and they guided the goslings toward an area on the far side of the river under the protection of a beaver-felled cottonwood extending out into the water. Honk, honk, honk said both of the parents, a victory call perhaps, or another warning.
Aggressive? Yes. Obnoxious? Perhaps. Willing to take a bit of finger along with a piece of bread held in a careless child’s hand? Definitely. But seeing this family in the context of its environment, with the hawks and vultures flying above, the dangerous and ever-changing river currents, and even bull trout eying the goslings from below, I began to understand their acerbic dispositions. They had to be this way to survive, living nervously as they did on the razor’s edge between life and death.
Just then my phone buzzed again, and again it was my grandmother. No doubt she was calling to grumble at me, or to me, or about me for some reason or another. But I suppose she too had her reasons. Honk, honk, honk.