Thursday, May 24, 2012

Parenting Skills and High Survivability of Canada Geese

There is reason why Canada geese survive so well much to the chagrin or dismay of many humans.
There is probably no other animal who is so fiercely alert and protective of its young. And the species as a whole prioritizes families at the very top of its social structure and hierarchy.
There is definite reason for the popular term, "Mother goose" and quite frankly, "Father gander" should be right up there as well.
The two together create a formidable team and pity any animal or occasional human who strays too close to the family or poses any kind of threat to the goslings.
But, while geese with broods shoot straight to the top of goose hierarchy, deference is also displayed to the senior members of goose gaggles and flocks.
It is the youthful, non-breeding geese who tend to get batted around and rank lowest on the goose totem poles. It probably takes several years for geese to learn all the complexities and rules of the species, as well as rise in status.  And the latter mostly occurs when the geese finally mate and successfully produce offspring. (About three-years of age.)
In many ways, Canada geese are a great deal like humans, though "divorce" doesn't seem to exist among mated pairs of geese -- nor, bad parenting. 
Its almost as if their rules are set in stone and every goose seems to follow them -- though there are the occasional young upstarts or "rebels" who may stray too far from the gaggle or go off on their own adventures.  When that occurs, usually two siblings will be assigned to "go get them."  (Observed that over this past winter with migratory geese who wintered at Harlem Meer.)
While nature can often be merciless towards the young, (taking them days or weeks after hatching or birth), Canada geese (and humans)  might just be the two exceptions to the rule.
That is mostly due to superior parenting skills and traditional raising of the young by both parents.
It is speculated that most healthy goslings hatched in Canada geese survive until adulthood, unless something happens to both parents.  That is sadly not true for most animal species who bear multiple young at one time.
Goslings are more fortunate than most -- thanks to the devotion and vigilance of their parents and protection of the species as a whole.
Some, but not all of these things were observed again last night when at the Central Park Boat Lake to visit with "Mama and Papa" goose.
Mama and Papa are of course the "senior resident geese" of the Boat Lake and probably all of Central Park.   They produced and successfully raised their own family of six goslings in 2010 and though they again attempted to nest this year, the one or two eggs did not hatch (which is probably good due to Mama's age and declining vigor).
Nevertheless, Mama and Papa still command and receive top respect and deference of the other geese at the Boat Lake -- with the now exception of the new goose family.
Similar to two nights ago, I was sitting on a rock feeding treats to Mama and Papa while two younger geese stood peacefully off to the side.  My two dogs rested quietly about ten feet away.  Both Mama and Papa (as well as the other younger geese) are very used to my dogs and barely pay them any mind -- nor my dogs to them.
But, this was a different and smaller rock formation than the one on the west side of the lake where we encountered the new goose family two nights ago. At that time, my dogs were leashed and tethered to a small wire fence about 20 feet from the geese. 
Though I didn't think about this initially last night, I soon would......
Suddenly, I could see from the corner of my eye, what appeared two geese swimming in our direction.
But, when Papa raised his head and started to honk loudly, I knew it was the new goose family.
As they did two nights ago, Papa and Mama immediately ceased eating and moved to the far side of the rock -- apparently to "clear the way" for the goose family.
Although there are six goslings in the new goose family, it is hard to see them when the family is swimming as the little ones are tightly wedged between both parents.  The family appears like one unit in the water.
The family arrived to the rock and once again, the gander was the first to climb on -- presumably to insure it was "safe."
The goslings then followed with Mother goose carefully holding up the back.
But, "Daddy" gander was not entirely happy.
His eyes were fixed upon my two dogs ten feet away and he hissed loudly and frequently.
Fortunately, my dogs neither reacted nor moved a muscle.
After a while, the gander seemed to "figure" that my dogs were not a serious threat.
Although he eventually stopped hissing, he never took his gaze from them.
Meanwhile, the goslings merrily and confidently pranced up to me and begged for food -- a couple of them being so bold as to gently peck at my hand.  (This family is well used to people -- probably from growing up near Bethesda Fountain, a popular tourist spot.)
Like the Daddy goose, Mother also watched carefully, though occasionally lowering her head to swoop sunflower seeds from the rock.
Both parent geese chased off ducks wandering too close to the goslings and at one point the Daddy goose,  apparently not satisfied with the distance of the two juvenile geese, vigorously went after and banished them from the rock.
"Begone with you, you young pups! You stray too far over the line!"
Lesson learned for two juvenile geese still figuring out the rules of goose life.
But, new father gander made no motions towards Mama and Papa at the far side of the rock. Seniority counts for something.
All went smoothly from that point on -- until a large snapping turtle made its way on the rock and started to move towards the sunflower seeds -- and too close to the goslings.
BOTH  parent geese, suddenly united to flap wings and aggressively go after the huge turtle.
Turtles are not noted to move fast -- but this one did. Within seconds the turtle was off the rock and back in the water.
Parent geese mean business.  -- So much so, even I was a bit spooked by them with the huge, flapping wings, hissing and lightening fast motion.
Canada geese are often accused of being "aggressive" when guarding nests and young.
I don't know that "aggressive" is truly the correct term as I have never seen a Canada goose actually hurt anything. (They have no teeth or claws, after all.)
But,  they can seem quite formidable by making themselves appear much larger than they actually are.  Canada geese curl and bend their heads like snakes and even copy snake-like hisses.  That along with the outstretched and flapping wings is enough to scare off most predatory animals, including foxes and possibly even coyotes.
Once, when Papa and Mama were raising their goslings and I encountered them one night along a grassy pedestrian path, Papa approached my dogs in this manner and it was the one time I was actually spooked and worried for my dogs.  I slowly and carefully had to back off.  I realized later, that the family was more vulnerable on the path away from the water and that was why Papa took on what appeared to be a more "aggressive" stance.
Watching the way both parent geese reacted quickly to the threat of the large snapping turtle last night reminded me of that incident.
As the sun went down and I was depleted of treat, I realized it was time to leave -- though I could have stayed another hour, the scene before me was so fascinating.
Daddy goose was still watching my dogs, though had long ceased hissing at them. The goslings and Mother continued to sweep up any remaining seeds on the rock.   And meanwhile, it appeared that Mama and Papa goose might settle down for the evening on the far side of the rock as they had done two nights earlier.  
Was this an extra pair of eyes for protection?  Normally, Mama and Papa retreat in the evening to the small rock in the middle of the lake.
I am guessing that whenever the family finally left to return to their normal resting spot, Mama and Papa probably did too.
But, I did not wait for that.
Instead, I carefully retrieved my dogs and we gingerly made our way from the rock and the Ramble.  I am sure the Daddy gander was watching us every step of the way.
What I learned from the evening is that while much can be said for the intelligence, adaptability, resiliency and steadfastness of Canada geese, the one thing that sets them apart from almost all of nature (and even many human lifestyles) is their fierce alertness and protection of young and truly superior parenting skills.
It is the rare gosling that (unless ill) doesn't make it with two healthy Canada goose parents and equally protective species members.
That is the main reason for the high survivability of Canada geese.  -- PCA

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