“There are 17 goslings on a log on the river back there,” a young man told me.
I shot one or two more photos of wildflowers, then headed west on the DuPage River Greenway to look for the geese. By the time I found the family of Canada geese, they were out of the water, crawling through leaves and grasses toward the asphalt path.
I took pictures of the fluffy little birds as they wove their way up the bank, munching on grass and leaves along the way. Eventually I decided to continue on west. By then some of the geese were on the path. Keeping an eye on the closest adult, I walked slowly and deliberately by, on the far side of the path. Evidently I didn’t appear too threatening; the geese didn’t honk or hiss at me. It is important to be cautious, though, because geese are very protective of their young.
I soon decided the goslings provided the most interesting sight along the Greenway, and went back to watch them again. The uneasy parents guided the little ones back onto the river. They hugged the shore, making it difficult for me to see them except where the grasses were short or there was a path leading to the edge of the water.
Some people don’t like geese very much because they leave their messy waste on sidewalks. I find them interesting and endearing. Most Canadian geese mate for life at three years of age. Our little goslings, since they live in the wild, are likely to live between 10 and 25 years. In captivity, Canada geese sometimes live 30 years. I’ve read that one captive couple actually lived together 42 years before the male was accidently killed; the female died shortly thereafter.
The parents of our goslings undoubtedly copulated in the water, as other Canada geese do. Then Mother hollowed out a scrape, i.e., a depression in the ground, and lined it with leaves, grass, and moss. She laid her eggs, one every day or day and a half, in this nest. After she laid a couple of eggs, she plucked downy feathers from her own chest. She used these feathers to camouflage the nest and to keep the eggs warm. The average clutch is 5-6 eggs, but a goose may lay as many as 10.
Once she was through laying eggs, the mother goose incubated them for 25 to 30 days. She rotated the eggs so all sides benefited from the warmth of her body and the down in the nest. During the incubation time, Mother seldom left the nest. When she did so, she hid it under sticks so predators (foxes, raccoons, snapping turtles, owls, etc.), wouldn’t find her eggs.
Father Gander spent most of this time standing nearby—not so near as to give away the location of the nest, but close enough to come to the defense of his mate and their eggs if necessary.
Shortly before hatching, the goslings began peeping inside the shells, communicating with Mother. It took them about a day to peck their way out of the shells. At birth, they were wet and mostly yellow. Their heads, until they dried off, had a greenish-gray tinge. Unlike kittens, the goslings could see when they were born. They could also eat and walk almost immediately.
Within 24 hours, Mother paraded her babies to the river, with Father bringing up the rear. By the time they were a day old, our amazing Bolingbrook goslings could dive and swim under water. They spend a lot of time on the water in part because they are safer there.
Our goslings were probably 3-4 weeks old when I saw and photographed them on May 9. Like other Canada geese, they should begin to fly at 2-3 months of age. In the meantime, they are honing their skills on land and water. Father and Mother will soon molt, losing their flight and tail feathers. Until these feathers grow back, the adults are unable to fly, so they spend most of their time on the river.
Our goslings won’t be pushed away by their parents and sent out into the world on their own when they fledge this summer. Unlike many bird species, Canada geese families remain together for a year. If they migrate, they will migrate together, then return together to this breeding area next spring. I suspect, however, that these geese are year-round Bolingbrook residents (called “residential geese). When the goslings are old enough to mate, they will probably do so on the DuPage River, Hidden Lakes, or a nearby pond.
By now, you may be wondering—as I was—why there were there 17 goslings in the brood on the DuPage River. I decided to consult an expert on the Canada goose, Betty Butler, whom I reached through www.canadageesenewjersey.com.
“Fairly frequently an older experienced pair will assume responsibility of the goslings of a first year inexperienced pair and raise them all together," Butler told me.
So our big group of Bolingbrook goslings may be two broods, one born to experienced parents and one to a young couple just learning.
“I have seen 19 and on one occasion 21 goslings with one pair,” Butler added, “but always within a larger community. The biological but inexperienced new parents will remain in the vicinity usually within eyesight and aid and assist. Usually in the same area other pairs with their goslings will also be seen. This larger group will remain together and remain as a ‘community.’”
Butler also offered an alternative explanation: in case of the death of one or more of the parents, another pair will “adopt” gosling orphans.
I’ll be walking the Greenway again, looking for the growing goslings with their parents, and hoping to see a second pair of adults, watching from nearby, ready to help.
© 2012 Wilda Morris