For the Birds Radio Program: Geese of the Platte

Original Air Date: March 15, 1996

How many is a bazillion? Laura Erickson tries to figure it out on today’s For the Birds. 3:55 Date verified.

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Imagine a tornado cloud—a huge, swirling mass rising up and darkening the Nebraska sky. I’m not scared of a whole lot, but I’m terrified of tornadoes. One of my favorite movies of all time is The Wizard of Oz. I grew up in Chicago, where ferocious summer storms and sirens blasting tornado warnings sent me running to the bathroom hall to crouch against the wall. This real funnel cloud was as enormous as any looming in my movie-enhanced nightmares, but I didn’t panic. I didn’t even get scared. All I felt was curious. For the rest of the sky was blue, and the wind was calm—at least about as calm as the wind ever is in Nebraska. And this tornado didn’t look tall and snaky the way I’d expect a funnel cloud to be—it was short and wide, seeming to suck up the ground beneath it into its swirling mass. An approaching tornado is supposed to sound like a freight train, but this one’s sound was high-pitched and wavering. When I pulled up my binoculars to look more closely, I saw flecks of white in with the dark swirling mass. This was no meteorological event after all. This was an ornithological tornado—an enormous, swirling funnel cloud of geese.

Nebraska is bisected running east to west by the Platte River. This enormous river was once called “a mile wide and an inch deep.” Now it’s been engineered and channeled and straightened and diverted to be much flimsier and narrower. But it’s as good a river as birds get during migration, so the Platte continues to serve as a magnet for waterbirds, and the 50-mile stretch between Grand Island and Kearney is especially appealing, since that stretch is wider and shallower than the rest of the river.

Geese of three species—Snow, White-fronted, and Canada—gather on the Platte for food and protection early each March. I caught the goose migration right at its peak, when a single goose flock can number—I can’t even guess how many. I use the word “bazillion” for really big numbers, but bazillion bears a connotation of exaggeration, and the amazing thing about early March Platte River goose numbers is that they’re so genuinely enormous that “bazillion” sounds like less than the reality. I’m sure that two of the flocks I saw each held at least a quarter of a million birds. Sometimes dozens of smaller groups, each numbering in the hundreds, flew overhead in big, complicated branching Vs that developed into whole sheets of geese, each flying at a different altitude, in a different direction. I loved looking up at these sheets of dark and white geese passing above and below one another against the crisp blue sky—through binoculars they looked like a self-turning kaleidoscope, constantly shifting and turning, the light catching wings different ways as the birds’ angles shifted. I’ve seen many wonderful things in the 20 years I’ve been birding, but the sheer numbers of geese on this trip is one of the most thrilling sights I’ll ever see.

With so many birds gathered in one place, I was filled with a feeling of well-being that at least one group of birds really is doing pretty well. Watching cyclone clouds of geese swarming in the Nebraska sky of a March day filled me with joy and reassurance that life is good and rich. I’ll be making this pilgrimage to the Platte River for many years to come.