It’s early in the morning, the sun is just above the horizon, a blazing orange.
I’m sitting by the dining room table, eating breakfast and looking out the window, watching the birds flying in and out to the bird feeders outside.
There are cardinals and red-winged blackbirds, black-capped chickadees, tufted titmice, a white-breasted nuthatch, downy and red-bellied woodpeckers, a blue jay, house sparrows, more birds and more species of birds than I saw on the entire recent trip my daughter and I had to New York state and back.
I wrote about the birds I saw on that trip when I got home, how few there were, species and individuals. It was visual evidence, I wrote, of the scarcity of birds, how much birds have declined. I listed several species that used to be common, that I used to see whenever I went out but didn’t see on that trip, meadowlark, several grassland sparrows, kestrel, red-tailed hawk, chimney swift.
One morning since our return home my daughter and I saw more birds in one flock than we saw on that entire trip. They were Canada geese and they flew over us, low, just we had stepped outside with our dogs, taking the dogs on their early morning outing.
A Canada goose is a big bird, approximately 3 1/2 to nearly 4 feet from tip of bill to end of tail with a 5-foot wing span. That’s the common Canada goose. There are subspecies, several of them smaller. One, called the cackling goose, is nearly a third smaller.
Canada geese have increased in number, not decreased. They are now, and perhaps always have been, the most common goose of North America.
They are also, judging by the flock that flew over us that recent early morning, the noisiest goose of North America.
A Canada goose is unmistakable. It has a black head, neck and legs, mottled brown back, lighter underneath, a white chin stripe, a band of white from one side of its head to the other and white under tail feathers.
Though they sometimes lay their eggs in the deserted nest of a large hawk, Canada geese usually make their own nests, platforms of grass, reeds and leaves in marshlands. A female Canada goose lays six to eight eggs and has one brood in a year. If the eggs are destroyed early during incubation the hen will lay a second clutch.
Canada goose goslings leave the nest soon after hatching. They follow the adults, male and female, and learn to feed themselves by observation. Their food is seeds. They gather in large flocks in harvested grain fields, feeding on seeds that were dropped during harvest.
They have lookouts. Some birds of a flock are always watching for intruders.
I’m not a hunter though I have hunted pheasants and rabbits and deer. Dad was an avid hunter. He hunted Canada geese, and ducks and pheasants and rabbits and squirrels and deer. Many times he told me Canada geese were perhaps the hardest game to hunt because of their lookouts.
My daughter and I were startled by the flock of Canada geese that flew over as as we went out with our dogs a few days ago. But that was a small flock, according to some accounts I’ve read. They tell of flocks of Canada geese that took hours — hours! — to pass. They sound like accounts of passenger pigeons, which were considered the most numerous bird in North America.
Now the passenger pigeon is extinct while the Canada goose is considered the most common goose of North America. Why the difference? Why have sandhill cranes and turkey vultures and cardinals increased in number while so many other birds, most birds of North America, have declined?