As I rounded the Long Pond one night in the chilly mist, the geese on the inlet through the woods were squabbling among themselves, agitated, opinionated, loquacious. Not all of them, but enough across such an expanse for me to know that a vast gaggle was spread across several acres of water.
They knew I was there. They saw the thin beam of my flashlight pointed to the ground. Some of their conversation—edgier now, more nervous—surely centered on that wraith of a man in the woods bearing light. When something rustled along the shore, I turned my beam that way without thinking and triggered a cacophony of wings scattering over water. Their honking quintupled, and perhaps a thousand geese took to the sky. An unthinking move of my arm had stirred mass panic, and their bodies now were thick enough across the sky to blot out the hazy moon.
How, in the city, could any simple gesture result in such drama?
The next night I walked to the point, where the pines open onto the inlet. It was late and many of the geese bobbed quietly, but others kept talking, gossiping, perhaps warning the others that they’d caught sight of me coming their way. I went slowly, silently, and then stood still to see if the geese grew quieter as the human threat subsided. Their honking did wane, so after a few minutes I decided to talk back, to mimic their urgent tones. My calls were loud but simple. A single note, more or less in alignment with theirs. When I cried out, the geese seemed to pause for a second to take it in. And then they resumed their chatter.
Could one’s ear, property attuned, tell the difference between the geese talk that says, “There’s a fox over there!” and those that say, “All’s quiet on my end”? Are some geese just irredeemably verbose? To my ears, some of the honking sounded habitual and matter of fact. Other strains spoke of fear, of sentinels broadcasting warnings to the others.
The geese in winter along this stretch of the Chesapeake are so numerous, so omnipresent, that it’s hard to know what to make of them. We want to see them in orderly Vs heading diligently south, but instead they wing east, north, west, and south, in Ws and Ys and every other letter, with no intention of relocating anywhere. They can make a great racket in the air, or when on water–“harsh and exiting,” as Mary Oliver famously described their call–and they fall dead silent when standing by the thousands in a field of shorn soy.
Birdwatchers nationwide hit the roadways and forests just days before Christmas to conduct a huge national Christmas Bird Count, something that has been going on since the late 1800s in some places. I ran into our local bird counter coming out of a swale late on the designated day with his binoculars hanging from a strap around his neck. We got to talking birds. You have to be sort of meticulous, he said, to keep track of the geese. If you spot a huge gathering of them in one quadrant you have to be careful not to to double count that gaggle it if ups and moves to another inlet an hour later.
So, as he crisscrossed our neck of the Chesapeake all day tallying ducks and eagles, owls and chickadees, he tried to keep a huge abacus active in his mind of the geese going hither and the geese going yon. Adding, subtracting, rounding, estimating. Keeping one eye on nearby branch and the other on the sky, monitoring huge migrations of the galloping geese. Bird watcher meets vast sky watcher.
“By my calculation,” he said, and I waited for it, held my breath for it, “there are 8,000 geese in Claiborne today.” At most, a couple hundred humans reside in the whole of greater Claiborne. There aren’t but twice that many households in the entire county. “Sounds about right,” I replied. While we talked, a flock of robins alighted high in a tree behind him and he took no note.
One morning, out for a brisk one, I heard them all jabbering on the inlet and I maliciously rushed the shore. As I burst from the woods an enormous wave of geese 500 yards wide and as many deep lifted from the water and wheeled into the gray sky. A few days later I was out walking in a vast field and hadn’t even seen the downed squadron until the whole of it caught wind of me and took flight in an enormous burst of caution. To them I was the embodiment of menace.
In my own mind, as though that matters, I couldn’t be less threatening, but they see me as a predator and methodically keep their distance. Out walking the roadways I will edge along a field thick with geese, and as I progress they will all move away, like a wave that proceeds me, assuring a distance between us of forty yards or so. They must have calculated my presumed swiftness, or the range of any gun I might have.
One day, just to test them, I ran a few steps into the field and several thousand geese took flight all at once in a vast phalanx of wings and bleating fear. Once aloft they broke into half a dozen flocks that then wheeled this way and that above me, the gleeful scaremonger.
Three days later I was on the far side of the Long Pond rounding the woods near an inlet of the Bay when a large squadron of geese came gliding down toward the water and flew 15 feet over my head, 30 of them at least, wings outstretched, their plump goosey breasts fully exposed. The hunter in me thrilled a little at the shot I would have had were I out right then with a 12 gauge. It’s a shot I would never have taken. Watching a bird in flight crumple to Earth would give no pleasure.
In their sheer number, Canadian geese are seen as pests to the humans who live in leafy neighborhoods with large lawns, or near parks with a cute curving pond. Something like large mice with wings or like the deer that nibble the daisies and the rhododendron. Out here, you see things properly, that the geese in their plenitude are at home in these waters, and that we are the pests and the grubby passersby. In the cities where the geese try to find a place to land or eat, the humans with their mowers and cars and bikes are the persistent annoyance, too many in number, too loud, too unkempt. They are the scourge, proliferating and gobbling up the hills and fields to build their ungainly houses.
If I had to make a long-term bet on which species will outlast the other and be more at home a millennium from now in the swampy innards of our cities, I would bet on the geese.
Neil King Jr. is a veteran reporter and editor for the Wall Street Journal and other publications.