It was a beautiful, sunny autumn day. Geese lingered, leisurely, on a farm pond. Between naps, they basked in the sunshine and preened their feathers. Done with their summer molt, they will soon use their new flight feathers to take off for wintering grounds in the South. Their skinny black necks and heads, along with the great size, distinguish these as Canada geese.
Before long, the sun settles low in the sky, glowing red on a pastel horizon. The geese rise together and seek to satisfy their hunger. They call with excitement as they climb into the air, then head north toward their favorite picked cornfield. A crop full of corn will satisfy them through the long night.
It's hard to say when these particular geese will decide to migrate. They may not be able to resist the calls of a passing flock on its way south. Geese are passing through nearly every day now, as favorable northwest winds assist their journey. Small local flocks may join up with them at any time, but many will stay put as long as there is open water and food to eat. Some Canada geese will stay all winter, if they are not pressured by the weather.
The Canada geese had a rough time nesting this year, here in the Kickapoo River valley. When the floods came last spring, many nest full of goose eggs wound up under water, forcing the geese to start over. After the waters receded, eggs were laid again, only to disappear after another flood. Some bird pairs were wise enough to nest on higher ground, but not all of them figured it out.
I don't think a flock of geese has ever passed over me without causing me to look up. The calls of wild geese are true voices of nature. Their honking beckons the wild instinct in all of us. Their clamor sounds like celebration, flock members reveling in their togetherness -- a feeling we humans long for. The geese seek safety and peace as they group together. A pair of geese will spend all their days together, which could mean 20 years or more.
This morning, while harvesting some prairie seed, I again heard the calls of geese passing over, and looked up. At once, I recognized the high-pitched calls as those of snow geese. In the 1950s and 60s, these geese were a common sight in southern Wisconsin. Back then, you were more to see a flock of Snows or Blues than a flock of Canada geese. Today though, the large Canada geese can be found nesting in every county in the state, but snow and blue geese are a rare sight.
There are several other birds that are spotted less frequently in our area today. According to a recent report by the National Audubon Society, habitat destruction is causing many bird species populations to decline at alarming rates. In fact, 30% of North America's bird species are on the decline. Marshes and bottomlands are being drained and planted into row crops or trees, hurting many wetland-dependent species. Grassland birds seem to feel the worst crunch, as tall grass pastures are over-grazed or mowed.
I generally don't write down the numbers of birds I see during migration. I write some things down, but for the most part I keep it in my head. I did notice that there weren't as many swallows and swifts around these parts this summer. I also have yet to see the usual huge push of Red-winged blackbirds and grackles. There are lots of flocks of these birds passing through, but not as many as I usually see in the fall. At the same time, a report from the World Conservation Union says that almost a third of the world's 1856 known species of amphibians are threatened.
There is something going on here, and we'd better start paying attention. Both amphibian and bird populations are an indicator of how healthy the land is. What happens when we lose the birds and frogs that help control the insects? When there are so many teeth missing in the great cyclic gear, a breakdown is eminent, unless change is made. How long can we wait to repair the damage to the earth that nurtures us?
We all need to ask ourselves, "What can I do to help?" For inspiration on making choices that are good for the planet, I'd suggest a long walk down nature's trail.
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