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


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