The BioGeek Memoirs: Canada Goose

Canada geese hanging out in the median of a roadway.

I first fell in love with Canada geese not long after we moved to Colorado. My husband was a student at the University of Colorado, I was a employed in a research lab, and we were pretty darn short on cash. Our little boy loved to be outdoors and it was easy for me to save stale pieces of bread for him to feed to the geese at local ponds. We fed a lot of geese those first years in Colorado; I still feel a little guilty when I throw out old ends of bread even though I now know that peas, and not bread, are better food for geese. (Actually, the geese can be pests and it’s best to not feed them at all. But it is so much fun…) Over the years the kids and I interacted with geese on a regular basis. They were there at the swimming beach in the summer. There was a nesting pair at the local library. The goslings quickly learned to run to visitors for treats, and just as quickly the kids learned to never, ever, chase the goslings unless you wanted a close encounter with an angry mother goose.

These goose parents were raising their offspring in the green area of a business park near me. There is a small pond with a fountain there… prime goose habitat!

Canada geese (AKA Honkers in my household) are big water birds. Like, maybe 10 pounds or more; if one rushes at you it is an experience to remember! There is a resident population of Canada geese in Colorado where they raise their young and live their best goose life, but every fall huge numbers of new arrivals show up for the winter. Once the migrating flocks of geese arrive you see them everywhere: parks, fields, open spaces, and anywhere else they can find a good-looking patch of yummy plants. All day they graze on what they can pull up with their beaks and then, as dusk begins to fall and the afterglow of the setting sun fills the western sky, the flocks take to the air in V-shaped formations and fly to ponds and lakes for the night, honking all the way. At dawn next day the geese will once again take to the air as they move out to their grazing areas. My home is in the flight path of huge numbers of wintering geese that move between bodies of water on the west and fields to the east of me; the geese formations fill the sky like a scene from an old WWII movie and the honks call to me as they pass. I can’t help it; every time I hear the call of the Honkers and see the flights my heart lightens and I feel a surge of joy.

There’s a story about the winter geese that can explain to you why I feel like that. Here it comes.

One December long ago, in his last year of high school, one of my sons became seriously ill. We rushed him to an emergency room around midnight where he was diagnosed with pneumonia and started on antibiotics; failing to improve, he was transferred to a Kaiser hospital near dawn that morning. In stunned disbelief, we sat there as the staff at the new hospital explained to us that our son was seriously ill; he was septicemic, entering organ failure, and they were starting another antibiotic to try to stop the infection. He continued to decline throughout the day and that evening a third antibiotic was started. The CDC was called as the bacterium was antibiotic resistant and a potential superbug. We asked if he would recover. The doctor carefully told us that he was young; he still had a chance if he made it through the night.

During the night he began vomiting blood and the antibiotics were stopped.

Dawn the next morning arrived as I was standing in his room, looking out the window, watching the huge flocks of geese travel across the city of Denver on their way to their grazing areas. So many geese; they filled the sky. Proof of life on a morning when I was facing down the possibility of death.

Behind me I heard my son get up, unplug his IV pole from the wall, and turned in amazement to watch him wheel away with it towards the bathroom.  Under his own power. He had made it through the night and clearly the tide had turned.

To this day, each time a low flying flock of geese passes over my house, my heart fills with joy. At dawn on cold mornings, going into the building for work, I would stop in the parking lot and let the rush of launching flocks pass over me, breathing in deep the start of a good day. I feel unbelievably lucky each time a flock paces along the freeway beside me, and the best, most wonderful moment ever was that time a windfall of landing geese came down around my car as I drove to Starbucks.

The Honkers and me. We have a contract between us.

Proof of life.

This goose was standing watch over its mate and the nest located in shrubbery just out of the shot to the left. That man in the background is my son.

Postscripts: I wasn’t sure if I should mention this, but the goose population has grown so large that some are being harvested to feed the hungry in the Denver area. You can learn more about it here.