For the Birds Radio Program: "Something Told the Wild Geese"

Original Air Date: Sept. 30, 1988

Laura talks about migrating geese, with Rachel Field’s poem.

Duration: 3′46″


(Recording of a Canada Geese)

What would autumn be without the song of the geese? Watching skeins of them threading through the Northland sky and hearing their wild call defines the season as surely as Pine Grosbeaks and redpolls hopping on sparkling snow define winter.

Canada Geese are the meteorologists of the wild–their instinctive weather monitoring rivals the most sophisticated equipment of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Yet, like NOAA, geese cannot see into the future. As far as anyone can tell, the clues they use for migration have to do with current frontal system patterns and the temperature, not anxiety about what the future winter holds.

In spring the vast majority of geese migrate along the 37 degree isotherm. They press northward just behind the thaw with the urgency of newlyweds. In fall, when the mating season is only a dim memory, their departure is not so urgent until lakes and ponds actually freeze. The leisurely southward flight is complicated by hunters—once the gunning season opens, goose movements are as much a search for sanctuary as for warmth and open water. Once they find a safe spot, their natural gregariousness lures other geese down to share the camaraderie of peacetime. Now so few wild places are safe for geese in autumn that large numbers concentrate in urban areas where discharging a gun is prohibited. Soon wild geese may become more common in urban habitats than in wilderness.

Canada Geese are clannish in a way humans can easily identify with. Most skeins of geese that we see in the sky are composed of related birds—parents heading south with their broods, joined by their young from previous years and their sisters and brothers with their families. So during winter, when young birds develop their pair bonds, chances are great that they’ll choose as mates birds that are at least distantly related. This means of genetically isolating related birds is probably why so many races of geese have evolved, from the enormous Giant Canada Goose to the tiny Cackling Canada Goose, which is hardly bigger than a Mallard.

Geese migrate in V’s, which are shaped exactly like the wake of a motor boat for exactly the same reason. The goose in front is the motor, doing all the work of slicing through the air, while the trailing current, like the current following a motorboat, provides a path of least resistance for the others. The goose acting as motor gets tuckered out fairly quickly, and then is relieved by another. Watch a flock of geese coursing through the sky and you’re just about certain to see them change position at least once while they’re in your field of view.

The beauty and mystery of migration are epitomized by geese, which have inspired many people to write about their flights. Rachel Field wrote,

Something told the wild geese
It was time to go.
Though the fields lay golden
Something whispered, —“Snow.”
Leaves were green and stirring,
Berries, luster-glossed,
But beneath warm feathers Something cautioned, —“Frost.”
All the sagging orchards
Steamed with amber spice,
But each wild breast stiffened
As it remembered ice.
Something told the wild geese
It was time to fly,—
Summer sun was on their wings,
Winter in their cry.

(Recording of a Canada Geese)

That was Rachel Field, this is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”