Left Behind

by Rex Burress

Gray Lodge Wildlife Refuge near the Sutter Buttes was exciting on a stormy February day. I went to watch the wind-whipped clouds and check on the migratory bird presence, taking the three-mile loop through the refuge a couple of times, conveniently using my van as a traveling blind and avoiding the stinging cold wind often propelling rain drops like slung missiles.

The great flocks of Snow Geese were gone, probably winging their way back toward the north land and the far away tundra country, but along the roadside, standing in some ricefield puddles amid the dirty stubble, stood a forlorn-looking Snow Goose, weak-looking as if it were impaired and left behind, probably grounded due to a misdirected gun shot that hit a wing. Its head was hunched down close to the body, and you got the feeling of a bored boy wanting to go somewhere but stymied by lack of transportation.

From the human standpoint, it was sad, a wild goose left behind when it probably watched the healthy flock go wheeling away toward the distant horizon in a clamor of calls, left stranded in the marshes, a wounded target for any number of predators. You canít hide when youíre pure white and flightless.

The goose had been grubbing in the mud for seeds and murky morsels, and the head and chest were smudged with dirt and clay as if it didnít care with no fellow geese to impress. Soon, I imagined, a crisis would develop, a fox would find it, or an eagle would swoop down for a hearty meal.

Being left behind is a sinking feeling, sort of like the desert bus going off without you as you run out of the ravine where you had been photographing cactus, waving to no avail as your transportation fades off into the distance, leaving you at the mercy of the sun and wind and maybe thieves. I once had that feeling back on the farm in Missouri when I had was down alone on No Creek fishing for bullheads. Somehow, I got the feeling that my folks had gone off somewhere without me, and I ran up to Fox Den Bluff and climbed the lone cedar to see if the car was in the drive. It was gone! I fairly ran back to the house to see if I was really alone. You can have runaway imagination attacks at age ten!

When I first started working at the Lake Merritt Wildlife Refuge and Rotary Nature Center in Oakland in 1961, Paul Covel, the reigning naturalist staff director, made a trip to Gray Lodge to obtain a couple of pairs of crippled Snow Geese to join the small Canada Goose flock at the refuge. The Snow Geese and Canada Geese were all permanently wing injured, but they did very well at the protected sanctuary with the bird islands available off-shore, and even started nesting and raising young. It was touching to see the offspring grow up to be able to fly while the flightless parents watched helplessly. The young hung around for a few years, and finally some flew away, joining the migrants in the marshes. The parents were left behind to continue an extended life in the city, adapting to the confines of a 150-acre lake and the metropolitan maelstrom, apparently not completely unhappy as they spiritedly pilfered the patronís bag of offerings.

Every spring the Rotary Nature Center would experience a rash of baby animals well-meaning rescuers recovered from the community, thinking they were helping out by catching a baby rabbit, or opossum, or bird, or even a fawn that they thought had been left behind. There are some occasions when a baby is truly lost, like an infant opossum falling off the motherís back they cling to, and someone finds it and tries a rescue, but often that well-meaning gesture spells disaster for the baby, either in trying to adapt it to a caregiverís food, or re-establishment dilemmas later when the displaced animal is re-introduced in an already-occupied territory or unsuitable area. When it comes to baby animals in the park or woods, itís best to leave them alone, even though it looks like they had been left behind. Some will succumb to predators, as that is the scheme of things.

I get that lonely "left behind feeling" every time I see a gray squirrel or other animal smashed on the road. That wasted animal definitely had a connection with others of its kind, and you wonder to what extent wild mates grieve at the passing of their comrades.

There was an ultimate "left behind" Canada Goose on the quiet stretch of water above Orovilleís Fish Barrier Dam one year. I kept seeing the lone goose on the "lake between dams" and finally decided it had a broken wing. In fact, I could see one wing hanging lower than the other. I suspected it had flown into the electrical power line that crosses the river.

I would see it paddling around the pool, nibbling grass along the shore, and watching intently for predators along the steep embankments. It also seemed to constantly be watching the sky, cocking its head to stare upward, as if to see the family flock that had left it behind. The only comrades it had in that lonely stretch of cold water was a few Pied-billed Grebes, mergansers that sometimes dropped in for some investigative probes, and a Great Blue Heron that often stood on the rocky islands.

The rock islands were the salvation of the goose, allowing it a safe place to roost at night apart from prowling coyote or fox. There were times when the local Canada Goose flock would fly over, and "Fowler," as I called the injured, would honk out a cry of greeting, and sometimes they would call back, but none would land in the hostile-looking waters.

One day I was surprised to see another Canada Goose paddling along with Fowler, and it appeared it was a pair and that Fowler was female. She was excitedly showing her friend the territory, swimming along the grassy edge, and clambering onto the main rock island and chattering as if saying that was a good place to nest.

A few days later, both geese were gone, but I eventually rediscovered both of them a mile downstream, where the newcomer had apparently talked Fowler into leaving the dangerous pool and make the plunge over Fish Barrier Falls. The male was nervous and would take off as if to ditch the affair, but she would honk her message, and he would come back, and they slowly paddled on down stream. I would never know the eventual outcome, but for a little while, Fowler had found a friend and had alleviated the agony of being left behind.

© 2004 Rex Burress
February 27, 2004