Naturespeak

May 2, 2013

You Can’t See Me

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 4:52 pm

Depending on the time of day or season, I would be the first to say that Canada Geese are not worthy of any attention or worthy of only negative attention. On some days, in fact, I am tempted to take on the persona of a Sith emperor and declare “kill them…kill them all.”  As a Jedi, however, I must admit that even these geese have a right to live – they are native birds, after all. “Kill some of them…kill some of them some of the time” might be a more responsible mantra.  And yes, they are worthy of some positive attention – especially as it relates to behavior.

This is the height of the breeding season for Canada Geese and the local marshes resound with a cacophony of honking and flapping. Theirs nests are everywhere and the goslings are now hatching out by the droves. Muskrat lodges are perhaps the most common nesting site in our region – the birds rearrange the material, add a few down feathers, and the females nestle in for their month-long incubation period. When so engaged, the momma geese are very reluctant to leave. Upon the approach of danger (in the form of a Sith emperor or a middle aged Jedi, for instance) the birds instinctively reduce their profile by extending their neck out and down. They literally hug the surface and will remain in this pose until the threat passes. The body remains motionless but they track the potential predator with their head as they pass.

Non-incubating individuals, away from their nest, will do this same “neck out and down” behavior even if they are out in the open or with their newly hatched goslings. The act seems fruitless, or even ridiculous, when the bird is hiding in plain sight. Why do they do it, then? Part of the answer is that they really can’t help it (or better to say that most can’t help it).

This posture appears to be a hard-wired behavior – an instinctive move meant to provide protection.  In the natural environment such a move usually works most of the time. These mottled brown birds blend in well with dead vegetation whether sitting atop it or swimming among it. The act of extending the neck and dropping the head hides the bright white chin strap. When in the water, the birds will lower their chin spot beneath surface. Instinct eliminates the need to think about details such as immediate surroundings. So what if you look stupid 50% of the time – it’s better than being dead 100% of the time.

Canada Geese normally use this facial marking as a means of communication and will boldly flash the spot using a series of head bobs and tosses. By hiding it they also convey a message to their young when the time comes. When mom does the head flip and then the drop chin, the kids know it’s time to gather close. This move is equivalent to mom using your middle name in conversation to convey the seriousness of the situation (“You will allow me to look stupid and you will appreciate it”).

There is another aspect of this behavior that complicates things. First of all, not all individuals do this – which begs the question how some can turn this off. I watched one pair of parents obediently perform their instinctive crouch (shown in these photos). Another pair, only a few feet away, did not do the crouch.  Oddly enough the two families joined together and confidently swam away from the scene with 22 goslings in tow (normal clutch size is 5 per pair). Perhaps the oddest thing is that the youngsters do not mimic this head down behavior for the most part. I once saw an entire family crouch down and freeze but that was in a situation where they were within a clump of concealing grasses. Of course, little geese are still at the ugly duckling stage and do not have a long neck and chin patch to employ or conceal. In most cases the goslings remained head up and alert. They clustered around mom and tried to look as fuzzy and defenseless as possible! Late in life, when they have a long neck and a nest of their own, they will do just as their parents did (and theirs is not to question why but to extend and to lie).

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