Before moving back to my home state of Minnesota, I lived for 22 years on my 30-acre farm near Hegins, Pennsylvania. It was a beautiful setting in a rolling mountain valley with a large pond down a slope from my front porch. There was a small island on the pond, and each spring, about the first week of March, a Canada goose and her gander would return to produce and nurture another set of goslings.
At the time, I was experimenting with video and chose to follow these two hatchlings in their journey form breaking out of the eggshell to flying away in the fall. It was one of the most meaningful, creative endeavors I had ever experienced. I was not only learning about the biological nature and behavior of Canada geese, I was learning about the blessings of life itself.
The island on my pond was a perfect spot for nesting. The goose and gander had a clear view of potential predators. With my binoculars, I would sit on my front porch and watch the mother build her nest while the gander stood guard. Each year he was pestered by a bachelor gander, who returned with the pair. He tried persistently to get on the island, which prompted the gander to chase him away. It was feathered shenanigans with constant squawking echoing through the valley.
Normally the mother goose would sit on her nest for 30 days, only getting up occasionally to turn the eggs over. The gander never sat on the nest; that was mama’s job. His job was to stand guard. As due date approached, I decided to load my canoe with video camera, still camera, tripod, and lawn chair and paddle out to the island. Of course the gander did not like the intrusion, and I can’t blame him. A human being on the island was an intolerable offense.
My timing was perfect. I had just set up my video camera, when I heard a peep. The mother raised her right wing, and the first of two goslings crawled out. Their feathers were wet from the liquid inside the eggshell, but by the next day the feathers had dried into a fluffy yellow, as seen in the photo.
Through summer, I followed the growth of the goslings as they roamed around my yard and frolicked in the pond. They always swam in a straight line with mama goose in the lead, the goslings following, and the gander bringing up the rear. When the goslings crawled up on land the gander usually stayed in the water. That annoying bachelor gander was still hanging around and needed to be chased away from the youngsters. And there were other dangers. A couple of snapping turtles lived in the pond and would attack the geese by going after a leg. Fortunately, this pair escaped that hazard.
As the goslings grew older, they started to look like their parents, and it was time for flight training. I loved watching the systematic lessons offered by the parents. The mother goose would gather her pair of maturing offspring up the slope from the pond. Usually the gander stayed in the water to be close to the landing site. The mother would run down the slope, and the pair followed. On the first two tries, they did not achieve much altitude before landing topsy-turvy in the water. Then the four geese would gather in a circle, and I would hear a lot of chatter. I’m guessing mom and dad were discussing the takeoff and landing. Something like this: “You need to get up more speed running, before you try to lift off with your wings. And work on gliding in for a gradual landing in the water. You came down in a plunk!” But before long this pair of youngsters had learned to fly just like their parents.
Videotaping this family of Canada geese was a lesson that went far beyond camera technique. I was learning about the connection between human behavior and the behavior of other forms of life. There is obviously something instinctive about caring for our offspring, be it a ewe and her lamb, a mare and her pony, a goose and her gosling, or a human mother and her child. Evolutionary theory tell us it’s all about survival of the fittest. But it’s also a gift we call love.
Ozzie Tollefson is the author of “Mr. Teacher” and lives near Phelps Mill.