Monday, May 29, 2017

The Curious Relationship Between Canada Geese and Raccoons

Raccoons and goose families sharing the same space....
Greta and her mate, Hansel call the goslings to gather close to them during sighting of raccoons in the area.
On the alert -- and protected.
Hansel goes on the attack against raccoon delivering a hard peck to the back.
So much a tiny gosling has to learn in early days of life.
But, despite all, raccoons and geese live in harmony.
During their first (and most precarious) days of life, newly hatched goslings have much to learn -- and they have to learn quickly.

Within hours of hatching from their eggs, Canada goose parents gather their little ones together and take them for their first swim. The goslings of the Central Park Reservoir also have to learn how to climb and navigate jagged and somewhat treacherous rocks that surround the watercourse in order to forage for grass and plants with their parents. Add to these early challenges, any extremes in weather, particularly heavy rain storms and/or high wind conditions.

But perhaps even more imperative than the mere basics of goose life is learning to recognize and immediately respond to the "language" of their parents -- especially the warning calls that alert the hatchlings to potential predators in the area.

During their first three weeks of life, I have had good opportunity to observe the learning curves for the new goslings of Central Park.

Sadly, two of the five hatchlings were lost within their first days of life. One within a couple of days of hatching and one within the first ten days. The goslings are, of course, most vulnerable during these early and trying stages, mostly due to their diminutive size, but also because they have not yet fully learned the language communications of their parents (i.e. variations and meanings of honks.)

Since I was not personally around to witness what exactly caused the loss of the two hatchlings, one can only speculate:  Injury on the rocks, possible predation by turtles, slowness or inability to keep up with the parents or even strong, 40 MPH  winds (such as immediately preceded the loss of the last gosling) are all possibilities.

And then there are the threats from raccoons.  

It is often noted in nature or general information reports, that raccoons represent strong and viable predation threat to Canada goose eggs and goslings. (And certainly, there are many raccoons living around the Central Park Reservoir.)

But over the course of several years of observation between geese and raccoons, I am somewhat skeptical of the claim. Not because it is impossible to imagine an opportunistic raccoon grabbing an unattended goose egg or errant, tiny gosling. But rather because geese are extremely alert to and responsive to any threats of raccoons. -- Even the mere presence of raccoons is enough to send the parent geese into a frenzy of fierce and aggressive protection and defense of their goslings (and eggs).

What is however, important in these situations is that the goslings comprehend and immediately respond to predation warnings from their parents.

More than once, I have observed Greta (the mother goose) call out to her babies in a series of short, excited honks that potential predators are in the area -- at which point, the goslings immediately rush back to cluster themselves safely between her and her gander, Hansel.  

Both parents then posture to make themselves look big, hiss and honk warnings to the raccoons. Should a raccoon persist in venturing too close, Hansel then goes on aggressive attack by spreading his wings, launching after the raccoon and usually landing a hard peck on the back.

A raccoon would have to be both, foolish and extremely lucky to grab a gosling under these circumstances.  So far, I have yet to see even one raccoon get close to a gosling -- and that's over a period of some five or six years of observation.

All this is not to say of course, that over the years a particularly tiny and wandering hatchling was too slow to heed the parent's call and ended up as an easy meal for an omnivore raccoon.

But I have to think that of all the things that represent potential life-ending threat to newly hatched goslings, raccoons are probably somewhat down on the list. (Once the goslings grow to about the size of a duck, any threats from raccoons become mostly nil.)

In summation, though raccoons are deemed potential predators of small goslings, they are more opportunistic than aggressive. It is the geese who need to be vigilant at all times and to respond with both, protection and aggression when a threat of any kind looms too close.

Fortunately for most goslings, Canada goose parents are among the most vigilant, protective and responsive animals on the planet.

The actual relationship between Canada geese and raccoons therefore remains one of wonder, curiosity, balance and mutual respect, rather than "predator vs prey" so to speak.

I tend to think most of nature is like that -- despite the gory depictions and titles of some nature documentaries.  -- PCA


Saturday, May 13, 2017

The Goslings' First Significant Weather Challenge

Less than a week old, the goslings face their first weather challenge today.
Mama Greta protectively keeping her babies close.
"It's a great big, scary world out there!"
Goslings in a row.
The four little ones follow Mommy, while Daddy anchors the back.
Not even a week old, the four tiny goslings of Hansel and Greta are forced to face their first significant weather challenge today.

A "Nor'easter" is hitting New York City, bringing with it, heavy, drenching rains, high winds and cool temperatures.

Already the family has suffered loss of one of their goslings shortly after hatching. Though generally a safe location, the Central Park Reservoir is not without hazards and potential predators as represented by jagged, sloping rocks, rough terrain, snapping turtles and the occasional hawk. Last year, Hansel and Greta similarly lost one of their goslings in the first days of life.

The babies are particularly vulnerable when so tiny and frail. Lacking waterproof feathers, they are covered in fluffy down that does not adequately protect them from the cold and/or heavy rain. Usually, when weather is harsh, the Mother goose tries to shield her little ones under her wings until conditions improve. The problem is, that the rains forecast for today are not supposed to let up until tomorrow morning. That, and potential flooding could pose special challenges for the new goose family.

I am, needless to say, hoping for the best. Hansel, Greta and their new babies have already become park favorites among many of the visitors to the Reservoir. Not a day passes that I don't encounter people eagerly photographing and following the new family's every move.

Canada geese are one of the few wild animal species who appear to welcome, rather than shun, human interest in their young.

Unfortunately, such trust and openness with humans hasn't always served the geese well, considering the capture and slaughter of thousands of them and their goslings by USDA "Wildlife Services" in recent years.

Still, not to be maudlin and overly glum, I am reasonably hopeful that Hansel and Greta will figure a way to get through the storm safely while fully protecting their little ones from harm.

Nature may not always be kind, but with a little adaptation and ingenuity, she is usually survivable.  

Let's hope that tomorrow's Mother's Day brings with it, not only sunshine, but victory and joy for all of our new goose family's members. Today is only the first of many hurdles the new goslings will have to face over the coming months. 

Call the Nor'easter, preparation for life. -- PCA


Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Great Romantic Bonds of Canada Geese -- Loyalty Like No Other

Hansel summoned yesterday to assist Greta in bringing babies to the water and establishing family bond.
And in another part of the park, Stumpy and Stanley appear in romantic dance.
Stanley -- forever committed, attentive and loyal.
A mystery how Stumpy lost her right foot years ago, but it matters not to her mate.
Not the prettiest goose it the park, but Stumpy does not suffer for a lack of love.
Back at the Reservoir, Greta showing her babies how to forage for food.
Proud mama.
All five goslings in tow, the happy family swims off together.
Hansel on sentry duty last night as Greta safely protects babies under her wings.

The family and spousal bonds of Canada geese are among the strongest on the planet and often put those of humans to shame.

Over the years, I have witnessed mated goose pairs actually grieve and hold mock funerals over their lost or unviable eggs. More than once I have seen a goose who has lost his mate or family continually search and call out in long, plaintive tones for what too often is irretrievably gone forever. 

One particular gander whose mate died several years ago during the nesting process, lingered alone on the Reservoir for months as if in perpetual grief. Though there were numerous flocks of geese on the water during the molting season (including many single females), the gander stayed completely to himself and did not mingle with or even fly out with the other geese when the molt season was over. (I am not sure what eventually happened with this widowed gander. It was during this time that construction began on the Reservoir running path and it was closed off to the public. By the time I was able to return weeks later, the lone gander was gone.)

When arriving to the Central Park Reservoir yesterday afternoon, I was hoping and prepared to observe the new goose parents happily swimming on the water with their recently hatched goslings. Greta's eggs had begun hatching two days before and so it was past time for the little ones to be hitting the water and learning how to forage from their parents.

But instead, I found Hansel protectively standing closely to his mate, while she continued to sit and presumably shelter her hatchlings.

I was a bit bewildered and concerned as the scene reminded me too much of the "mock funerals" I had witnessed in the past and more to the point, I could not detect any movement under Greta.

But not to be unduly alarmed, I decided to walk around Central Park for a while and return to Hansel and Greta a bit later. It was premature to make judgment. It was more than possible that Hansel had been summoned to the nest by his mate in order help her escort the little ones to the water as a family. But such did not appear to be immediately imminent as the goslings were not even visible.

I walked over to Turtle Pond to investigate whether the pair of geese observed there over the past few weeks was still nesting as they had initially appeared to be. (i.e. gander in guard mode.) In recent days however, the two geese appeared together on the water and that prompted me to think the nesting might have failed.

There were no geese on the pond and so I walked to the protected grassy area that is adjacent to Belvedere Castle. Sure enough the mated pair of geese were there leisurely grazing together.

Both geese recognized me and began moving forward to greet. I noticed the hen had a slight limp in the grass.

But as the geese got closer, the reason for the hen's limp was revealed.

She is missing her entire right foot.

"Oh my God, it's Stumpy!"

Stumpy is a one-footed goose who has been observed in various places around Central Park for some years. (Mostly, the south Pond and the Boat Lake.) It is likely that one of the reasons she has managed to survive -- even through two particularly brutal winters in NYC -- is that she has a completely loyal and devoted mate faithfully by her side. The two geese frequently call to each other and are clearly bonded for life, regardless of condition. Stumpy cannot move as quickly as whole and younger geese, but that does not dampen the love and commitment of her mate (whom I shall call), Stanley.

While observing the unbreakable bonds between Stumpy and Stanley yesterday, I could not help but think of the many times we hear in the human world of men leaving their wives of many years for younger and prettier women. Such clearly doesn't happen in the goose world even when the female mate suffers disability or fails to produce young.

"Monogamy" and loyalty in the goose world truly do mean forever.

I don't know how, when or why Stumpy lost her foot. It could have been due to a Snapping Turtle or it could have been a fishing line injury that eventually cut into and severed her foot. But, it doesn't matter as her mate accepts her come hell or high water.

That is the essence of the romance of Canada geese.

After spending time with Stumpy and Stanley and chatting with some equally enamored nature lovers, I decided to return to the Reservoir.

On the way there, I thought that it was for the better that Stumpy's attempts to produce young ultimately failed despite her and her mate's dedication. (The reasons don't matter.) Stumpy is an older, frail goose who has compromised vision and only one foot. None of that matters however to her mate who will always see her as young, healthy and beautiful. This is truly the stuff of great romances.

More pleasant surprises awaited at the Reservoir.

Hansel and Greta had indeed moved their babies and were observed at another part of the rocks that surround the watercourse. Hansel held guard in the water as Greta was busy showing her little ones how to forage for food among the plants and foliage. In their first days of life, newly hatched goslings have to learn how to move quickly, stay close to their parents at all times, swim and forage for food. They are forced to learn and grow quickly.

After some time, Greta returned to the water with her babies in tow where Hansel patiently awaited. The family then swam off together towards the north end of the Reservoir. The goslings were getting their first in-depth tour of the watercourse.

When finally returning home, I learned on the news that a badly decomposed human body was retrieved from the Reservoir yesterday afternoon mere yards from where Hansel and Greta had been nesting. (Guess that explains all the police activity at CP yesterday.)

It's not known yet if fowl play was involved in the person's death, but I could not help wonder of the irony. -- New life and old (possibly violent) death in an area only yards apart.

Last night, I returned briefly to the Reservoir to find Greta once again resting with her tired babies safely tucked away under her wings. Hansel stood sentry duty just a few feet from his family. There is little, if any rest at all for ganders who have spouses and babies to watch over and protect at all times.

All was peaceful -- and incredibly romantic once again.

No romance quite like that of Canada geese. -- PCA


Monday, May 8, 2017

The Avian Word is Out -- "New Goose Babies!"

"No photos please!" As a tiny ball of yellow fluff peeked out from under her wing last night, Greta, tried in vain to find privacy to hatch her new babies. But word was already out to mallards, starlings and even other geese that the season's first goslings were well on their way to entering the world!  It was going to be a long and busy night for Mama Greta and her devoted mate Hansel. -- The first family photos will have to wait until tomorrow. :)
WE HAVE BABIES!  On a chilly and blustery night, Greta was busy hatching her goslings at the Central Park Reservoir. Not all of her eggs had yet hatched when the photo was taken. But at least one precocious baby was eager to see the world.  "Not yet!" admonished the ever protective mama as she busily worked to keep him and at least one or two other hatchlings under her wing. It was going to be a long, chilly night and the safe place for the babies was to be gently tucked under their mama's warm, comforting breast until all eggs hatched and the morning sun peeked over the horizon.

I knew something was up yesterday evening when arriving to the Reservoir and noting Hansel, the protective mate of Greta nervously staying close to the nest area. In addition to Hansel, several nosy mallards and starlings also hovered around Greta's nest causing much annoyance to both parents. One particularly curious female mallard appeared to be offering midwife services to the then quite peaked Greta who let her know in no uncertain terms, she did not need any help delivering her babies!

And poor Hansel had to take time from his anxious moments of joyous anticipation to chase away other busybody mallards wandering too close in the water.  All this as a flock of geese excitedly honked and arrived to the Reservoir from the north end of the park!

It seems word had somehow gotten out in the bird world of Central Park that the impending birth of the season's first goslings was well underway! It was going to be a very harried night for both, Mama Greta and Papa Hansel.

Because of all the avian commotion and obvious stress to the new parents, I dared to only take one flash photo. I could tell from Greta's direct stare that she was none too pleased to see me as is usually the case. This was the one night she wanted privacy and it was in short supply.

I at least had the decency to eventually leave. But I could tell those nosy mallards weren't going anywhere no matter how hard Hansel chased them or Greta stretched her neck out.

Then there was that flock of excited, noisy geese who had just flown in!

As I finally left the Reservoir last night, the gaggle of about a dozen geese in the distance were quickly swimming east towards the then-happening blessed event.

I could only wonder if they remembered to bring the champagne and cigars?  -- PCA


Saturday, May 6, 2017

First Casualties of the Year -- John and Mary's Eggs

Greta still on eggs at Reservoir in Central Park. But will they actually hatch as they are due to within a day or two?
John (left) and Mary (right) hovering around nest earlier in the week before being forced to abandon. (Note plastic bottle near eggs.)
Note the empty bottle seemingly tossed on Mary's nest.
After taking a few days to presumably console their grief, John and Mary returned to the Reservoir yesterday. Nature does not allow much time for waddling in despair. Life requires adaptation.
Some sad news to report.

John and Mary -- one of the two pairs of nesting geese at the Reservoir in Central Park --mysteriously abandoned their nest earlier in the week.

It is difficult to speculate on what, precisely went wrong. Nor would it be entirely accurate to say that matters had been progressing entirely normally (whatever "normally" actually means).

But as written in a "Tale of Two Nesters" a few weeks ago, the two nesting hens were behaving rather differently from the get-go.

Greta and her mate, Hansel spent more than a week preparing and fretting around the nesting site. Greta created a "blanket" of down from her breast to carefully line the nest and hide her eggs. But John and Mary spent little time around the nesting site until the time Mary actually laid her eggs. Nor was any down distributed in the nest to conceal and/or help warm Mary's eggs.

In the weeks that followed, Greta never left her nest and only occasionally got up to move the eggs around or take a stretch, whereas Mary frequently took short breaks from the rigors of nesting and incubation. It was not unusual for Mary to wander a short distance from the nest, leaving her eggs exposed.

Little of Mary's behavior seemed "typical" to me or even in line with her past nesting behaviors. Did she sense something off about this particular batch of eggs or was age or some mysterious environmental factors having impact upon behavior?

It's impossible to say with any sense of certainty. What is known is that the area in which Mary nested is frequented by a family of raccoons -- though she successfully nested in the exact same place last year.  (As previously noted, geese are quite adept in defending their eggs against raccoons and John and Mary are no exceptions to that. If anything, the raccoons appeared wary and intimidated by the two geese.)

What's also known is that Mary is an older goose (not sure how old) who is now blind in one eye. Did either of these factors play a role in the eventual sad outcome?

It's possible that the stress of having to constantly protect and defend against roving raccoons became too much for Mary and her mate and it's possible that age and half-blindness also contributed to the failed nesting. It's also possible that harassment from some cruel humans might have played a role as evidence by an empty water bottle hurled upon Mary's nest during the last two weeks.

Add to those possibilities, the fact that Central Park had a policy for some years of addling (i.e. oiling) goose eggs in order to suffocate the embryos and prevent them from hatching. It is not known if this policy is still active, but if the eggs from at least three other nesting goose hens in Central Park (including, Greta) fail to hatch, it could be assumed to be.    

This past winter, there was no evidence of "Geese Police" being active in Central Park and with few resident geese remaining in Central Park, there is certainly no need for them now. (There are currently less than a dozen geese in all of Central Park which is more than 800 acres.) 

The problem with ongoing goose harassment and egg addling policies in some places is that when geese mysteriously disappear and/or their eggs fail to hatch, it is difficult to know whether such is due to natural phenomena or human actions.

Greta has now been on her nest for nearly a full month. Presuming and hoping her eggs to hatch in the next day or two, such would signify the mishap with Mary's eggs to be due to age, environmental or other, individual factors. Should Greta's eggs not hatch however, such would suggest human interference. Certainly, Hansel and Greta have done everything to ensure a successful nesting process and healthy, viable goslings.

And yet, truth be known, even when all factors are nearly perfect, the eggs of nesting birds don't always come to fruition.

Too many times, I have personally witnessed geese appearing to "mourn" over their destroyed or unviable eggs -- including this year with John and Mary.

(Before actually "abandoning" the nest, the two geese hovered around it for several days as if in grief or holding some type of memorial service. I knew then the signs were extremely ominous for a successful hatching. Since that time, John and Mary have briefly left the Reservoir and then returned to it last night.)

Last year was the most successful year for Central Park nesting geese. But though both, Greta and Mary each laid six eggs last spring, only half of them actually hatched, producing six healthy goslings in total.

Considering all the things that can and often do go wrong in the nesting process, perhaps it is no surprise that seemingly only the older, more experienced and established goose pairs actually nest.

It's a daunting process with no guarantees for ultimate success and lots of potential for loss and grief. 

The loss of John and Mary's eggs represent the first known goose casualties of the year in Central Park.

It is with great hope that they will be the last to have to report.