Wednesday, March 30, 2011

"Diehards and Honeymooners"

(Photos: "The Honeymooners" -- Ralph and Alice.  These resident geese are easily recognizable because the female, Alice is lame and the gander, Ralph is always very protective of her.  Alice has the lowered body posture.)
If one is lucky enough to live near a park that has mallards and geese and one is also fortunate to visit the animals on a regular basis, then, not surprisingly, the birds quickly get to know you. 
Geese and ducks will usually show recognition by either walking or swimming up to a recognized and valued person when that individual enters their line of vision.  Sometimes, they even swim across a wide lake.  The birds' vision is apparently quite sharp and misses little. Often the ducks and geese will issue a vocal greeting of quacks, honks or cackles when seeing a human they recognize and feel warmly towards.
If one is really lucky we too, learn over time, to recognize, well at least, some of the birds!
It is of course, not easy for us humans to distinguish among birds that look extraordinarily alike.
It can even be difficult to tell a male from a female goose, as the birds' markings are identical.
But, there are subtle differences in the body posture and language between male and female geese and usually the females are a tad smaller than the ganders.
If, for example observing two geese swimming together, the female usually swims with her head lower than the gander's and slightly curved.   If standing together, the gander often keeps his head in a very high, stretched out position in order to watch out for any threats to the gaggle, mate or family.
The male mallards (drakes) are easy to distinguish from female ducks during most of the year, except for the summer.   During the summer, the bright greens, purples, silvers and blues of the drakes fade to a drab brown and they are then difficult to tell from the females. 
Perhaps that is because the drakes are seemingly relegated to second place during the warm weather as some of the females raise young and quite literally, "kick the boys to the curb."  (Mallards are extremely feisty.)
Mallards are obviously not geese. 
In the duck world, the females seem to call the shots and they apparently don't want the males around, particularly when raising young.
Lots of "single mothers" in the duck world. 
Almost none in the geese world (unless some misfortune befalls the gander). 
Among the geese, the ganders play a crucial role in both guarding the nest and protecting mates and goslings, once the eggs are hatched. 
Both parent geese share in the raising of the babies and the young goslings will stay with the parents for a full year or up to the next breeding season.   At that time, the parents then begin to push the yearlings away and demand their alone time as we have recently seen with the family of geese at Turtle Pond.
I have been extremely fortunate over the past few years to have opportunity to get to know intimately, a number of ducks and Canada geese from Central Park.
Many of them I have written about throughout this journal. 
From the two domestic, flightless ducks, "Brad and Angelina" at Harlem Meer, to "Joey," the white, Pekin duck who had to be rescued a couple of months ago (after sustaining a dog bite) to the family of 8 geese from Turtle Pond.
It has been a wondrous and enlightening experience getting to know and learn so much about these extraordinary, unique and often whimsical birds.
But, there have been other geese and ducks I have become familiar with in recent times. And though I haven't assigned individual names to all of them yet, I have come up with a general group name for the lot:
"The Diehards."
The diehards are a small group of about 30 mallards and geese (in all) who don't migrate over the winter, but stay either in or close to Harlem Meer most of the time.
I wasn't always so kind to the diehard mallards over this past winter and in fact, often referred to them as the "fair feather friends" to BradJoLina (the three flightless ducks).
It seemed every time the weather got really vicious and stormy, the mallards took off, leaving poor Joey, Brad and Angelina utterly alone to deal with the fast icing-over lake and merciless weather.
Indeed, there were times when the three domestic ducks had to swim and bob up and down frantically almost 24/7 to prevent the tiny pool of open water from entirely freezing over!
"Where the hell are those flighty, irresponsible mallards when you need them?"  I found myself saying more than once in total frustration!
But, then of course, once the weather cleared a little, the mallards inevitably returned.  All ten or fifteen of them would then be starving and practically run me over when I showed up with food. 
In fact, on a couple of occasions, the crazy mallards even tried to follow me home!
Well, the diehard mallards are of course back at the Meer now all of the time.  And yes, they still recognize me and come prancing when my dogs and I show up at the lake.  But, I don't go to Harlem Meer everyday now and I don't bring a lot of seed with me when I do.   Just a few hand fulls to let the duckies know, yes, I still care about them, but they are more than capable of finding their own food now -- and should. 
Then there are the "diehard geese." 
This group consists of about 8 to 10 geese -- mostly pairs, who similarly stayed in New York City over the winter.  
They were in fact, the last geese to leave the night of the notorious, November "goose harassment" operation.  I guess they are somewhat used to the harassment and it doesn't necessarily spook them as much as the non-resident geese.
These geese, in fact, returned back to the Meer within weeks of the harassment and continued to come and go throughout the winter.
Two of the geese I have named because they are easily recognizable:
"Alice," the female goose walks with a pronounced limp and her gander, "Ralph" is extremely protective and watchful over her.  (Yes, I call them, "The Honeymooners" as a couple.)
I am guessing the Honeymooners (like Brad and Angelina) have been around for some years.  They know their way well around the Meer, they are somewhat independent of other geese, they know me well and they don't spook very easily.  
Ralph is particularly confident and gently eats seed from my hand.  His lady, Alice, however, is more shy.  Perhaps she has to be for being somewhat compromised with her bad leg.
I saw the Honeymooners yesterday, along with two other pairs of geese and two families that constitute what I believe are the "diehards" (or resident geese) of Harlem Meer.(They all know me.)
Although there were quite a few more geese a couple of weeks ago, I imagine some of them might be moving on now to birthing locations.
No geese have produced young at Harlem Meer over the past few years.  One guesses that whatever eggs might be laid would be oiled.   The geese must be getting the message by now that if they want to reproduce, they have to do it elsewhere. 
That "elsewhere" doesn't include Central Park because egg addling is regularly conducted there.
(The only reason goslings hatched at Turtle Pond last year was because the parent geese built their nest somewhere in the rocks near Belvedere Castle.  In previous years, their eggs had been oiled.)
I don't know what are the potential "breeding" possibilities of obviously mated pairs of ducks (Brad and Angelina) or mated pairs of geese (Ralph and Alice) who are otherwise, resident birds of the Meer.
Though always together, Brad and Angelina have not produced young since I've been observing them over the past two years, (though three other mallards did produce ducklings last year).
And Ralph and Alice would not be allowed to.
But, for the moment, it is nice seeing all the diehard mallards and geese back.
What the Meer will look like a few weeks down the road when harassment and oiling operations generally resume, is anyone's guess.
Canada geese are not usually seen at the Meer at all during the breeding and molting seasons.
We usually don't see the geese again until mid or late August.
Let's hope the Honeymooners actually have a safe place to "Honeymoon" -- and raise young if that is what they choose to do over the objections and actions of humans. -- PCA

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