I was at my desk correcting typos in a recent article when the phone rang. It was one of our Fair Haven neighbors, local naturalist/arborist Chris Ozyck, with a hot tip.
“You think your winter is long?” he said in his gravelly, naturalist’s voice. “There’s a lame goose.”
“Quinnipiac River Park. This one can’t fly. If this bird weren’t in the city, he’d be coyote food.”
It’s been tough this winter for all the local populations of geese. All that snow has covered up the vegetation these birds need to eat.
“In the fall it could barely fly. Now it can get barely four feet off the ground,” Ozyck reported.
“I’m on it,” I told my source. I grabbed my camera as well as a handful of old granola including sunflower seeds, my camera, and I was out the door. To the southern end of the park. Near the Brewery Square apartments. Where Ozyck said the birds have been hanging out.
Unfortunately, it was already late afternoon Friday, and getting even colder fast. The sun was going down; there was no sign of living geese noticeable from the road.
I stopped briefly to explore for clues in the park on foot. Geese droppings and human detritus were much in evidence on the snow pack where Front Street curves into Chapel at the Brewery Square apartments. But no birds lame or firm of wing were visible.
Saturday: Witness Found
The next morning I resumed my search. The air was cold, the sun bright. The snow pack remained fairly untouched and glistening, although the melt on the margins had left the brown grass visible.
Inside the few boot-prints along the snowy hill by the Brewery Square parking lot, the geese had deposited evidence of their having found something to eat.
Yet still no geese themselves visible.
I decided to enter the Brewery Square apartment complex itself to see if I could get a lead.
This time I was in luck. I didn’t spot a goose. I did spot Florine Spann (pictured). She works in the office at Brewery Square. The gaggle had not escaped her.
“There were two on Sunday, then they came back with three others on Monday. On Tuesday there were five,” she reported.
Yes, but was one of them lame?
The look she gave me was just the polite side of “Are you kidding me?”
It turned out Spann is a serious birder. She pointed to the rafters, where the complex’s resident community of noisy European starlings sometimes cause such a ruckus that residents complain. She pointed out that a hawk has been in residence in one of the evergreens at the margin of the Brewery Square parking lot. That hunter had been eyeballing a fish tank perched, as it were, in a resident’s window.
That resident felt nervous. He had come into the office to express his concerns. That’s how Spann knew about the hawk. Advice was given: Get the tank out of the window.
Spann led me around the fine pile of 19th century stone that is Brewery Square. “There’s a grassy area in the courtyard, where they were,” she said of the geese.
Residents had complained about the “poopification” of the courtyard. “Our maintenance supervisor said Monday they were marching in a row straight down here. ‘Hey, we found some land,’ my idea of bird talk. I was going, ‘Shoo shoo!’ These guys didn’t pay me one bit of attention,” she reported.
Spann explained to some of the residents about the geese Then someone said, “Don’t they make a good stew?”
So, did one of the geese in the gaggle look lame? I repeated my question.
“To me they all looked the same, walking in a line.”
That was the problem, of course. You probably could not tell which goose was lame, assuming I would ever find these creatures, unless the w hole gaggle took flight.
I thanked Spann, then returned to the park to see if the geese had emerged.
Near the condos at the curve of Front Street Dennis Aptaker (pictured) was checking his mail. He’s a graduate student in occupational therapy at Quinnipiac University. I figured he should know his anatomy, and a thing or two about lameness.
Yes, he sees the geese there all the time, he said. And a lame one? He said he walks his dog Rupert there all the time. “They’re [all] mobile when the dog nears,” he said.
Does one walk a little funnier when Rupert approaches? “I don’t notice a lame one. Maybe he blends in. A few will fly and a few will walk” whe
Finally, I found the geese in the park the next day. Some were sitting in a curled-up ball trying to keep warm. Others walked about, awkwardly placing their webbed feet on the snow. Frankly they all walked a little lamely, as if terra firma were their second choice of a surface to deal with. All seemed to move tentatively, with a goose’s version of a pigeon-toed walk.
By now, of course, I knew that in order to determine which of the geese is lame, I’d have to try to make them take flight. If the geese hadn’t all scattered when Rupert approached, I’d have to make a big effort to scare them. I summoned a bird-scattering yell, and moved toward them.
Frankly, I didn’t unleash it, such as it was. What would I do with a lame goose, even if I were able to uncover its identify from the gaggle?
I figured it was time to consult Mark Aronson, the Independent‘s resident ornithologist.
I made the call and explained the situation.
“First of all,” Aaronson said, “they’re not ‘Canadian’ geese. ‘Canada geese,’” he corrected me. To the best of his knowledge about Canadian politics, these animals don’t vote, he added.
We arranged to meet over lunch the following day so I could show him the pictures I had taken of the geese. Perhaps with his daunting avian knowledge, Aronson could pick out the bird in question from the photo evidence.
Monday: The Expert Speaks
For his services, I decided to buy Aronson lunch. We met at Thai Taste, under the Hotel Duncan. We ordered. I took the curry with tofu. He had noodles, with a bird. Chicken, to be precise.
Then we got down to work. Aronson said the lameness “could be a broken wing. I don’t know. I’d have to interview the goose.”
I showed him the pictures on my camera. I told him it was highly unlikely I could arrange an interview with a particular goose I could not pick out from the gaggle.
He corrected me that a gaggle is up to seven, but may be termed something else if the group is more than seven. He had the humility to say he wasn’t quite sure about that particular fact, although he did make a quick check on his phone to the source of all sources/ the Cornell Lab of Ornithology
He offered these geese facts that related to the predicament of the still unidentified lame goose: These Branta Canadensis eat mainly grasses and sedges in winter, the latter being stuff in the water and at the water’s edge. If they se a worm, he ventured to say, they’ll eat it. So they’re not strictly speaking vegetarians, especially during a harsh winter.
As to getting at food beneath the snow, “I don’t think they can shovel snow. It’s not in their kit,” he said, and then demonstrated (pictured).
Aronson said these geese in our area love to golf, that is—to hang out on the green of the golf courses, where humans’ putting green is their well- stocked cafeteria. That’s where their predators, the fox and the coyote, flock as well. Which is why geese seek water and water’s-edge locales for protection at night. No self-respecting coyote is going to swim out to a delectable warm sleeping goose through the icy waters of the Q River.
Affirming what Ozyck had said when my saga began, Aronson added, “They don’t want to become coyote food.”
Wearing his ornithological erudition with just the slightest edge of impatience, Aronson said he frequently has to explain to his many questioners that these geese are not migratory populations. When they fly north, no, they are not confused and going the wrong way. On the contrary, they are likely headed to the links in Wallingford.
Which means, I said, I will have more time to find the lame goose, I said.