A Time for Snow Geese

by Rex Burress

Deep in winter and January, often locked into gray wintry days, there is always a bright spot just over the horizon. The migratory Snow Geese are out in the valley marshes, either resting on the water or rising like a blizzard to circulate in the sloughs - or dropping out of the sky like a storm to drift back onto those places of sanctuary! It is one of the wonders of the season and people come from far and near just to witness the Snow Goose flurry of life.

Whether you are at the State of California's Gray Lodge Wildlife Area, or the federal Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, or any of the other central valley marshes, you are likely to see Snow Geese intermingling with an assortment of migrant ducks during the winter. There is something, indeed, uplifting about their living feathered bodies defying the elements, as there is also a certain romance about the migration instincts that brings them from the Far North every year. There is the simple beauty of their color and design as they interact with the environment, reappearing every autumn in a display of reliable repetition signifying the cycle of the seasons.

Pick out any Snow Geese in those massive flocks through your telescope and study its individual characteristics. You are sure to be awed by the white body, black wing tips, pink feet, and pink bill - and most of all, within that small head with the beady black eyes, there is a brain that directs the bird to far away places - northern nesting in the summer and southern resting in the winter. "What giveth the energy and taketh it away?"

It is also a time for the annual Snow Goose Festival in January! People gather at the Masonic Family Center in Chico to be led into the field by guides or participate in one of the scheduled programs. It is a celebration of the coming of the Snow Goose and the wonderment they bring.

I am reminded of a Snow Goose we had at the Lake Merritt Waterfowl Refuge in Oakland, California, when I worked there for 32 years. (It's the oldest wildlife refuge in the United States.) Naturalist Paul Covel had acquired three wing-injured Snow Geese from Gray Lodge in the 1950s and took them to Lake Merritt. They thrived at the lake and even nested on the newly built duck islands, eventually increasing into a little flock of thirteen. They became very popular, especially "Old Knob Foot," an off-spring that developed a deformed foot. Old Knob would sit on the pool railing, balanced on one foot, and, almost as if planned, would jerk the shriveled foot to gain the attention of sympathetic bird feeders! He got more than his share of choice grains and breads.

The Snow Geese born at the lake were able to fly, just as the injured introduced Canada Geese raised young that could fly, and soon you could see them circling high in the sky. For several years it seemed like the lake was their new home and they never left during the migratory season. They would even fly to other ponds around the city and then return to Lake Merritt, circling in the city to the delight of bird lovers, honking their plaintive calls as a note of the wild and free. Then one spring five Snow Geese flew away, maybe lured by passing birds or reverting to a dormant instinct leading them back to the homeland. The original thirteen slowly faded away, Old Knob succumbing to a dog, until at last there were no Snow Geese at the lake.

The Canada Geese have fared better, enthusiastically embracing the city and all of its grassy lawns and kind-hearted brown-bag people. Those refugees still spread their call of the wild to the city and have learned all the gleaning spots where they can reap a bountiful living. They now number nearly 1,500, reappearing altogether at the lake for the summer molting rendezvous every summer in June.

It would seem that the city human populace would be graciously thankful for such a blessing from nature, having wild geese freely living at their very doorsteps. But there is a growing complaint that they are too messy and befoul the lawns and walkways with defecation. That problem is currently being discussed in city government, and a business has been formed to scare geese from the lawns with dogs. "Goose Busters!"

The wild goose has offered its beautiful presence to the city, but are scorned by many. No wonder Wild often stays wild and tries to avoid man, sometimes the blunderer. No wonder the Snow Geese shy away from human presence to seek fulfillment in the distant tundra. But even there they are being criticized for "destroying the tundra" by excessive foraging. What is the future for waterfowl and all wildlife? Will human occupancy of the planet crowd out the original inhabitants? Will wise wildlife management protect sufficient habitat for their survival? If you’re a goose you just want to be a goose and live in a proper place on Planet Earth.

© 2004 Rex Burress
January 20, 2004