Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

November 20, 2007

The Magic Goose

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:45 pm

   I don’t consider myself a lucky person.  Yes, I am lucky to be alive and lucky to have a wife and three fairly normal looking children, but I mean lucky as in “the finder of valuable unclaimed things.”  I normally find broken jewelry and pennies, not dollars and diamonds. I picked up $35 on the ground once, but found out who it belonged to the next day and had to give it back. I was going to give the funds to a charity anyway – really I was.  Earlier this month, however, all that changed and I became a lucky man indeed.  I found a rotten bird leg.

   Tucked back under the boardwalk at Crosswinds Marsh, I spotted a patch of wet matted feathers framing a few articulated leg bones. Initiating the beginning steps in my forensic examination process, I snapped a photo (this is what I saw) before disturbing the scene. There were no other body parts nearby and the feathers were of the featureless down variety.  A bit of flesh clung to the remains but the most obvious feature was a metal band that encircled the shorter bone. Fortunately the bones were within easy reach, so I retrieved them from their resting spot among the cat-tails.

  I suspected the leg to be from a Canada Goose – call it a hunch (aided by the fact that the air was full of thousands of honking geese at the time).  In a typical year, over a million birds are banded for migration research and some 350,000 of those are ducks and geese – the rest being songbirds, raptors and the like. Given the large size of these remains and the wetland location, it was no great revelation of science to declare this dearly departed limb to be from a goose. 

  The band would normally be of great assistance in identifying the victim in this case. Federally licensed bird banders are issued specific bands from the facility in Maryland. They come in 23 standard sizes to fit everything from the insect-like appendages of a hummingbird to the massive meat hooks of a Golden Eagle. Each band is stamped with a unique eight or nine digit number along with the words “Avise Bird Band, Wash, D.C.” and “Write bird band, Laurel, MD, 20708, USA”. After a researcher crimps the band around the lower leg of his captured bird, he records the number and date, along with weight and species information, and releases the animal with its new jewelry in tow.  All of this information is sent to the Maryland banding lab. If the bird is later recovered, this I.D. number will link it to a specific place and time and allow researchers to learn a bit about migration routes and life spans.

  The band on my boardwalk find appeared to be a typical butt end aluminum job about 5/8 inch wide.  I wiped it off in order to see the numbers, but was confused by seeing the word “REWARD” in place of the “Write bird band…”  There was a six digit number beneath which almost looked like a phone number, but was one digit short on the exchange side.  A little more wiping cleared off the figure of “$100” as the reward amount.  This bird had a price on his head.

  The Maryland number wasn’t there, but I decided to contact the bird lab anyway to see if this thing was for real.  Sure, I wanted to report the information for the sake of science and all, but there was that bit about a cash reward that needed some resolution as well.  I have never heard of a Reward Band before and fully expected some laughter to come through the other end of the phone line.

  Before calling, I wanted to make absolutely sure that the victim was a Canada Goose.  I needed to sound very official when reporting my find.  Saying “I got me a dead burd and you owes me a hunnart bucks,” would come off as suspicious and blackmail-like. No, I’d verify the facts and report them clinically before mentioning the subject of blood money.  Then, after the laughter died down I would be able to take the practical joke news with scholarly dignity.

  My “Avian Osteology” text confirmed that I was in possession of the right tarsometatarsus of Branta canadensis – the Canada Goose. (I left the upper leg bone, the femur, at the marsh). My specimen measured 85 mm and fell neatly into the listed length range of 82 to 94 mm. for the species. Take a look here at a picture of the bone and you’ll see that it ends in three projections that would have articulated with three foreword facing toes.  This is the portion that forms the lower leg of the bird in life. In this case I had the banded right leg of a goose in advanced death.

  I placed my call to the bird lab and no one said “gotcha.”  My voice landed on the desk of Kim Magruder after three transfers.  She answered my questions about Reward bands and informed me that they were a regular “tool” employed by game agencies to prompt band reporting. She took down my location information and address.  “The lab will send you a certificate later on that will tell you about the bird and where it was first banded,” she said. I repeated my address, just in case she didn’t get it right, and thanked her.  Before hanging up, she then assured me that I would be getting a check in the mail. “Oh that?” I said, “well I guess that would be o.k. also, but I just wanted to make sure this thing got reported.”  I then repeated my name and address one more time – for the certificate, you know.

  I got a check for $100 in the mail exactly one week later (here it is, if you don’t believe me), but haven’t received my certificate yet. I’ll have to tell you the factual scoop on this bird some other time. Meanwhile, I’m thinking about tearing the check up. I mean, with the government in such financial straights and all it just wouldn’t be right?  Right?

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