Wednesday, March 7, 2012

An Agreeable Gaggle of Gregarious Greater White-Fronted Geese

Spring’s bird choir is tuning up, which reminds me that I never got around to writing about some of the birds of autumn. I’m sure you’ve all been on tenterhooks waiting to hear about that, and have passed the winter in a state of nervous agitation, so I am happy to now be able to quell your anxiety (though I realize splitting that infinitive may spark more unrest in your soul…sorry.)

Late last October my friend P. and I were walking briskly around Green Lake when we nearly stumbled upon three plump, taupe-and-white geese nonchalantly wandering across the path. 

They seemed mildly surprised to encounter us and baffled by the notion that we expected to proceed along the path, as if they had no idea that we were bigger, heavier, and moving faster than they were, and just continued their leisurely stroll, turning their heads to blink at us in bewilderment.

In fact they were a lot like many Seattle pedestrians, who amble haphazardly across the street without looking right or left and then seem surprised that you had to brake abruptly so as not to hit them.

I’m sure these geese were not at all interested in what my genetic makeup was, but I was keen to know theirs: What manner of goose were they? They certainly weren’t the Canada geese that frequent area lakes, nor were they the scrappy ruffians that used to patrol Green Lake, the dumped domestic geese of various breeds that banded together with half-Mallard, half-domestic ducks to fill what we used to call Bad Duck Cove.

When I checked various field guides, I was convinced these were migratory Greater White-fronted Geese—at least, until I doubted this identification and became convinced they were domestic geese showcasing the graylag-goose ancestry of the barnyard breed. 

My friend, however, sent along some pictures of immature White-fronted geese, which showed the youngsters as lacking in the white facial feathers and dark belly feathers of adults. In addition, a list of birds spotted at Green Lake over the years confirms that White-fronted geese are sometimes seen in fall as they migrate from tundra and taiga nesting grounds to winter feeding grounds farther south.   

These clues, combined with what seemed to me a lack of that deep-bellied keel typical of a barnyard goose, have me fairly well convinced that these were young migratory White-fronts.

Different subspecies of this bird are found circumpolar in the northern hemisphere. Across the pond, they’re typically stripped of their “Greater” designation, though, which keeps the European birds from getting ideas of grandeur. (Or gander.) 

In the United States, they’ve also been known by more colorful names, such as Laughing Goose, Gray Wavey, Marble-belly, and Specklebelly, any of which I think are much better names. 

The doddering lack of concern evinced by the geese at Green Lake doesn’t appear to be unusual, from what little I’ve read. The 1930s-era publication Birds of California notes that hunters were able to sneak up on white-fronts grazing in a field by hiding behind obliging cattle and horses, which puts me in mind of cartoon characters tiptoeing from shrub to shrub.

John James Audubon writes that “of the different species [of goose] which visit…they are by far the least shy.” Other than the fact that they’re “delicious” and that the bird’s intestine is seven feet long, he doesn’t offer up much else about it other than descriptions of its appearance.

With a word like “Greater” in the goose’s name, it stands to reason that there must be a Lesser White-fronted Goose, and there is: it’s smaller, highly endangered, and found in northern Eurasia. 

There is also, quite marvelously, a laudable effort called the Fennoscandian Lesser White-fronted Goose Conservation Project. Now that is an organizational name I long to see on a T-shirt or in a Christopher Guest film.