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Fly By Night

It’s a sound I look forward to each year — the off-key, out-of-sync honking that marks the transitions from winter to spring and from summer to fall. The trumpet-like sound of Canada geese causes me to stop, drop what I’m doing at the time, and cock my head skyward to search the wide blue yonder for a large V-formation as a grouping of the large black and white birds migrates overhead. My eyes scan the blue abyss until I see them — sometimes so high that they are merely specks in the sky.

And that’s the familiar sound I heard last week.

I had walked out of our house around 10 p.m. with a flashlight. Dark and shadowy outside, a bright moon illuminated the landscapes surrounding our house as I escorted our Golden Retriever out into an adjacent field to relieve herself one last time before bedtime. As the dog and I walked across the hilltop, we were shocked to hear the honking of several geese.

I smiled to myself.

“They are flying by night,” I said to my dog, as if she cared. “I’ve read that they do that sometimes.”

I looked upward, saw nothing in the nighttime sky except a few bright stars, and wondered how Canada geese navigate in the dark. The lead goose doesn’t have the luxury of having a bright red nose like Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer. How do they see?

I find Canada geese truly amazing creatures, but not everyone is a fan. Some folks see the feathered migrants as messy nuisances, pooping all over their pristine property and around their lakes and ponds. I’ve witnessed this myself at a neighbor’s pond, as a couple dozen camp out for a while like the pond is a posh beach resort. I’ve even had to stop my car a few times on the road and allow the geese to cross so I didn’t hit one. They never seem to be in any hurry, and if I were an impatient type, my head would probably explode as they waddle across in slow motion.

Canada geese have not always been so plentiful. They were threatened in the beginning of the 20th century due to habitat degradation, wetland removal, and widespread hunting for their flesh and feathers, and their numbers fell to dangerously low levels, but thankfully, the government intervened and applied protections. In the 1980s, there were fewer than 500,000 Canada geese in North America. Today, there are more than five million.

Their signature V-shaped formations are one of the most extraordinary aspects of these feathered creatures’ lives. The lead goose is the lowest of the bunch, and each goose behind is slightly higher than the one in front of it. The point goose is exerting all of its wing power, but the other geese benefit from the “lift” created by the geese in front of them and don’t have to work as hard. The formation is highly efficient for long distance travel.

Also, the geese take turns flying at the point of the formation. When the point goose tires, he or she drops back to a rear position and takes a break.

I’ve read that when a goose gets sick or wounded and falls out of formation, two other geese stay behind to help out and protect it. They stay with the fallen goose until it is able to fly — or until it dies — and then they launch out on their own, or with another formation to catch up with the group. Isn’t that admirable?

They’re also monogamous and pair up for life, which is about 24 years on average.

So back to last week when I heard them flying at night but couldn’t see them … Perhaps they check the local weather report and decide whether it would be easier for them to fly during the day or night. Nighttime is a cooler time for them to migrate, which prevents them from overheating on the long trips. They often choose to travel several hours after sunset to avoid the thermal updrafts prevalent during the daylight hours. Finally, flying in the darkness keeps them out of view of air-to-air-striking predators like hawks, eagles, and falcons. They rest, relax, and feed during the day, then pack their bags and take off at night.

Canada geese can fly 1,500 miles in a single day if they experience favorable weather and wind conditions.

We live in a time when we just don’t see a lot of migratory birds any more, and that breaks my heart. But Canada geese are thriving and flying high. Their fly-by honking last week suggests that winter is just around the corner — time to get out my fleece, flannel, and fat lighter. But most of all, their distant honking in the darkness reminded me of how magnificent they are.

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