I was jogging around a city lake one summer when a skinny, salmon-colored Canada goose nearly flew into me. I caught myself just as he came to an abrupt halt and began hissing hysterically as if the near-collision was my fault.
That wasn't all that stopped me. Looking down, I saw that part of his upper beak was missing. I stood there, staring. Later, I wondered how he was able to forage for food, and if the deformity was a birth defect or the result of a predatory attack.
We would become friends over the next five years, this intrepid intruder and I. He wasn't the first Canada goose I have befriended nor would he be the last. I am drawn to the lost, the downtrodden, the disabled. I have nursed several Canada geese with fractured legs or fishing-line injuries. A few owe me their lives. Some are resident geese I see every day; others every few months or so. I would be lucky to see this newcomer once a year. He and his family are true migratory geese and spend three-quarters of the year presumably scouring the four corners of the globe.
I named him the Half Moon. I had wanted an Indian name because I am part native American and share with him the nomadic qualities of the Canada goose. More than once, I have watched him take flight, wanting to follow like some wild desperado into the night.
photo by Karen Rosenow
I took him under my wing that summer with a vengeance, fattening him up with cracked corn and a 12-grain bread to which he became addicted. He was accompanied by a small group, obviously his parents, and a sibling. He was still a gosling, and unnaturally shy, but there was a fiestiness about him that I liked. Canada geese are by nature territorial. One day the Half Moon shocked us all by actually chasing off another goose, an act that elicited celebratory coos of family approval. I was glad for him.
He kept me at bay that first summer, as migrating geese, leery of humans, tend to do, but there were several notable firsts. There was the first piece of bread he caught by chance, prompting endless praise on my part. The deformity made it impossible for him to compete with other geese for food. By the time he got close enough to grab a piece of bread, it was already in someone else's mouth. I tried a different tactic with cracked corn. I waited until all the other geese had eaten; then poured out a pile as tall as a skyscraper. He approached cautiously, not sure of what it was, then tasted a few kernels before devouring it all.
Geese are not new to me. I've stood in the middle of hundreds of both migratory and non-migratory geese and marveled at how human they are. Like us, Canada geese have an inordinate sense of family. Like us, young geese—or "juveniles," as they're called—go through a lengthy transition to adulthood, trying like teenagers to fit in. And like us, Canada geese fall in love; perhaps choosing a mate more carefully than any of us because for them it really is a lifetime commitment. Canada geese males are also among the most romantic creatures on earth. American men ought to observe how ganders treat their women. Everyday is Valentine's Day for females that are part of mated pairs. Their ganders hover over them, seeming to whisper sweet nothings in their ears as they brush their necks with those powerful bills. And it would seem to have little to do with sex. Despite all the goslings they're accused of siring, they mate only once a year when they go off to rest, relax and nest, something like a second honeymoon, for several months, returning sometimes with goslings, sometimes without. The rest of the year—10 months or so—is pure romance and, of course, parenting. The parents—gander and goose—raise their offspring together. Nor does anyone have to coerce the dad into performing his parental duties. The goslings as much his as they are hers. Even now there is a single dad at the lake whose three goslings are his pride and joy.
The Half Moon and his family left one day that fall without fanfare, and I tried to speculate where they went. I was sure they didn't migrate to Canada because of the great distance but they might have gone to the Hudson Valley in New York State, a seasonal stop for geese from the Mississippi flyway. I knew they didn't stay in central Alabama because there were no surprise drop-in visits in January when grass is scarce.
To my disappointment, the Half Moon didn't show up the next summer, and eventually I gave him up for dead, reasoning that he'd been shot by hunters or the deformity had made it impossible for him to survive on his own.
And then the summer after that, I was feeding a small group of geese when I looked up and there he was. I could hardly believe my eyes, but there was no mistaking that trademark beak. I was also stunned by his appearance. Gone was the shy, retiring gosling I had nursed to adolescence. There before me stood a majestic, full-grown gander, strong and sturdy of muscle, and obviously not encumbered by any handicap. His coat feathers, now a deep chocolate, glistened and shined. "Life in the wild must surely agree with you," I said aloud, assessing his overall health with pleasure.
He was also, not surprisingly, with his sister.
Young geese could teach us a lot about sibling love. I have seen brothers and sisters coo to one another with sheer unabashed affection, and wondered how they managed to get it right and we didn't. In their world, sibling rivalry is for the birds. They seem to have grasped the notion that developing a support system with your brothers and sisters forms a healthy basis for future attachments. There are minor squabbles but no fights or altercations. Geese siblings also stay together long after the parents have gone off to nest, sometimes for years, leaving the fold only to find a mate themselves.
And that was the way of it with the Half Moon and his sister. Five years later, they remain inseparable, exploring the world together, softly crunching cracked corn from the same pile or watching out for each other.
I didn't worry about The Half Moon as much that winter. I have friends in Canada who see their geese only once or twice a year and they suggested that I learn to accept the circumstances of long-distance affection. He'll be back, they told me, and if he's not, just remember he's living the life for which he was destined.
The Half Moon and his family showed up again the following year just before the molt (when geese are growing new feathers), and stayed several months. I continued spoiling this now-beloved gander who would purr contentedly as I spread cracked corn.
The family left again one evening in mid-October. As I stood near, I sensed that this might be the last time I would see the Half Moon for awhile, and I verbally wished him well. "Stay safe, my friend," I whispered, "and come back ..."
In mid-July of last summer, I began awaiting his return. Every time I went to the lake, I would survey the landscape to see if he was there. He arrived in mid-August but this time my excitement at seeing him was tempered by disbelief. The drought that had settled over Alabama and much of the South had taken its toll on the Half Moon. He was emaciated.
I suspect the deformity had made it harder for him to scratch out what little grass there was. He was bony and thin. His feathers were mottled, and more than a few were missing. There were chest indentations that indicated some serious brawling. The rest of the family looked thin but none seemed on the verge of starvation.
"Wait here," I told the Half Moon, as I ran to my car.
I came back with a loaf of his favorite bread, a 12-grain honey-wheat concoction loaded with nutrients.
I broke the bread into bits and distributed it to the entire family. Then I placed great piles of cracked corn on the ground, leaving enough so that the family could nibble at leisure all day.
Over the next few weeks, I continued fattening him up. He ate like there was no tomorrow. He also seemed to sense that I was trying to help, and that this time it was more than just about building layers of fat for a long flight ahead but in his case, survival itself.
By mid-September, I began to see results. The feathers grew back, and he began to fill out. There was also something else. It had taken five years but the Half Moon no longer skittered away at my approach. Now he would step away from the other geese and walk off, knowing I would follow with a bag of corn that was his alone and sit with him while he ate. Sometimes the soft crunching would lull me to sleep. Other times we engaged in conversation. I would ask how he was feeling and he would answer in deep-throated purrs similar to that of a cat. He also chattered, chirped, cooed and chimed, treating me to the full spectrum of geese vocabulary. One day it struck me that the deformity—part of an otherwise beautiful face—had become part of his overall appeal and wondered if that might sometimes be the same with people.
Because of the drought, I bought hundreds of pounds of cracked corn to help many geese survive a summer without grass. I may have reached the Half Moon just in time. If nothing else, I sent him on his way borderline plump—with enough fat to see him through the winter when vegetation is sparse. But last year's departure was harder than most.
Over the years I've watched him respond to human kindness with a newfound trust of his own. Like a surrogate parent, I have seen him fledge from gosling to full-grown gander. Still I never know when or if I'll see him again. And then I remind myself of the glorious summers, of that one day when I arrive at the lake and, without warning, am greeted by a wild clamor of honks and kisses as the Half Moon and his family descend from the skies, landing unceremoniously at my feet in a sea of feathers and unrestrained joy. In the meantime, as I jog past our favorite places, I am content with the knowledge that he is where he wants to be and while, at the moment, that may be hundreds of miles to the north, here at the lake—with its sun-drenched wintry sheen and wavering shadows—he is here at least in spirit—and that is indeed something to honk about.
Footnote: Much to my relief, the Half Moon arrived right on schedule this summer, Aug. 21 (2008). I had gotten to the lake early. Wanting to avoid the rush, I began distributing cracked corn when I noticed several large groups of geese fly in. I jogged around the lake, then stopped to observe the newcomers. Soon after, I noticed a goose struggling with a pile of cracked corn and, moving closer, began to smile. "Half Moon!" I called, excitedly. He looked up and purred a "hello" and then returned to the corn. I let him eat. There would be plenty of time enough to catch up on all the news.
Feb. 14, 2009: The Half Moon paid a surprise mid-winter visit on Valentine's Day. He also arrived with a romantic surprise—a new mate.