You hear them in the early morning, honking calls echoing off of the valley walls. You hear them in at sundown, their raucous a-honks signaling their return to the protection of the wetlands. You hear them on still nights, their occasional cries up at 7,000’ keeping the flock moving. “They” are Canada geese and their presence and passage mark the transition of winter to spring.
Though the geese have been present throughout the winter, populations migrating northward mix with those that overwintered in the Moab Valley. Moving from the river, to the Matheson wetlands, to fields of waste grain or the golf course and back to the river, these birds are mixed bag. There are those that love to hear and see these wild birds flying overhead and there are those who don’t.
Populations of these geese declined significantly in the 1700s and 1800s in portions of the United States due to unregulated or market hunting. By the 1900s the birds were almost extirpated in the lower 48, and conservation efforts underway to protect these birds, and their rebound has been solid. Introduced birds through hunting groups, state and federal agencies and conservation organizations led to establishing populations that nest in the lower 48, while “migrant” individuals breed above the Canadian border or in the northern U.S.
Next to great horned owls, the geese are very early season nesters in the Moab area. Islands in the Colorado River or isolated banks offer secure locations for the geese to nest. Lower water flows also won’t impact the geese until the spring runoff covers these islands. By then, parades of goslings and adults have already departed these nest sites. Along the Colorado River, near the state line, the honkers may nest in rocky alcoves above the river, the sites offering protection from most predators.
But the geese represent more than just a wildlife species to me. Their presence evokes a primordial stir to move, to migrate. Skeins of geese fly in the V-shaped wedges, following their relatives northward, pushing on until they reach their breeding grounds. I relate to this movement, this lifting off and heading away into the void, seeking suitable stopping spots, then leaving and heading northward.
And speaking of northward, our Canadian neighbors are contemplating the Canada goose as their national bird. Incredibly, they do not have one, but hope to right that void by 2017. The forerunner in the voting is the common loon, a bird that represents northern lakes and wilderness. The call of a loon heard through the early morning fog on some remote waterway is a thing of beauty. But those northern neighbors already have a “loonie,” a one dollar coin that features this magnificent bird, and a “toonie” for the two dollar version. Of course, the goose has been stamped on other Canadian coins throughout time, so it isn’t a matter of being left out. But I think a “goosie” would fit nicely as the national bird or at least on a fiver.
For now though, I appreciate these geese which have rebounded from overhunting in the early 1900’s. They may be the bane of golf course managers and city park crews that have to deal with their droppings and occasional aggressive nature, but that is a small price to pay for the symbol of freedom and wanderlust that these honkers represent.