Even snow geese get the blues

MD-Even snow geese get the blues_3col

Dorchester Banner/Paul Clipper A mixed gaggle of geese, including snows, blues, and Canadians cover a field near Horn Point.

To Michener’s goose, Onk-or, the Chesapeake “shimmered in the autumn sun and spoke of home. Its thousand estuaries and coves promised them food and refuge for the long winter, and they joyed to see it.” To those mostly fictional geese, the Choptank River region was their second home, a comforting place to spend the long winter.

The geese we see here on the banks and estuaries of the Choptank are far from fictional. November comes, and threat of another cold, wet winter sets in. The ospreys and the songbirds head south, following the hummingbirds. Many of your human neighbors start packing things up as well, and chattering about the good times ahead in warmer climes.
When you know you’re staying behind, it seems like everything is moving out, and it’ll be a long, drab season ‘til they’re all back.

Then here come the geese. They fly down in their long v-formations, or in huge “snowstorms” of birds, hit the cornfields like they own them, and gabble long into the night without a break–a thousand geese talking and probably none of them listening. They take the edge off the cold days and give us something to marvel at, at least until we can talk about good weather and crabs again.

Onk-er and his family were Canada geese; dark necks and heads with white cheeks, bodies in gradations of grey leaning towards brown. They are the most common geese you’ll see in your travels, and entertaining enough, in their own way. But for me, the joy comes from seeing a flock of snow geese move into the neighborhood.

Early this year, a gaggle of snow geese, actually a variation of snow geese known as blue geese, held noisy residence in the corn fields at the turn in Town Point Road. They were a local companion while the weather was warming, getting itchier every day to head back north.

Snow geese are easy to spot; they’re mostly white, and a beautiful bird in flight, wheeling around the fields with their black wingtips flashing in the sun. But the birds in the fields off Town Point Road were different. They were a ragtag bunch of misfits, with white necks and mottled body colors ranging anywhere from grey and white to black patches with dark grey spots. At their worst, they’re a sad looking bird, appearing to be a patched-together mix resultant from the occasional mating of the elegant-looking snow geese with the common Canadian.

When actually they’re not. These so-called blue geese, are only a color morph of the greater snow goose, with a single gene controlling where they wind up in appearance.

If a dark goose mates with a white one, the offspring will be all dark. If two dark geese mate, they’ll have mostly dark offspring, but they could sire a few white ones too. If two white geese mate, their offspring are always white. Blue geese most often travel with, and mate with, blues; and white geese tend to stay with whites, although it’s not uncommon to see them all sharing a field, maybe with a few Canadians sprinkled in.

The appealing thing with this “dark morph” greater snow goose variation, is that fewer than four percent of the greater snow goose population fall into that category, the so-called blue goose. And who doesn’t love an underdog?
White or blue, there is only one population of greater snow geese in the world. The birds breed in the Canadian High Arctic on northern Ellesmere Island, and travel the Atlantic flyway of North America in the fall and spring. They mate for life and tend to return to the same places every year, so if you’ve been visited by them in the past you’re very likely to see them again.

The snow geese have a propensity to gather together in huge flocks during migration. More than half a million birds gather each year in early April at Baie-du-Febvre, on the south shore of Lac-Saint-Pierre, between Montréal and Trois-Rivières.  They winter-over from New Jersey to South Carolina, with the greatest population staying right here on the Delmarva Peninsula.

True also to Michener’s book Chesapeake, hunting of the geese was popular and mostly uncontrolled until the early 20th century. Hunting of snow geese was banned in 1916, once the white goose had become an exceedingly rare sight. Today, although hunting has been re-instated, the populations are thriving. So much so that the intention of hunting any more is to try to cull the flocks back to where they cause less damage to their own habitat.

Their diet is strictly vegetarian, and they like every bit of their favorite foods, eating shoots, roots and everything. A large flock of snow geese can wreak havoc on a salt marsh. Interesting to note, though, is that food can pass through a goose in only an hour or two, giving some truth to their role as “fertilizer factories” on farm fields.

Well, our particular flock of blue geese were back in the same field in mid-November, looking just as homely and mixed-up looking as they were when they left last spring. They don’t stay in one place, they’ll mix it up and visit a number of fields during their stay, sometimes on the waterfront in the Neck District, sometimes in a corn field near Hurlock. You’ll see them out there waddling around yakking like carnival barkers, in all their motley glory.

They’re a harbinger of cold weather to come, and a noisy one at that. But they’re a great source of entertainment while all our warm-weather neighbors are enjoying the good life down south!

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