Interview with a Canada Goose

Canada Geese have very strong family bonds. Photo by Shankar s. December 2012. Geese in the pool. CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/shankaronline/8347919573/

Canada Geese have very strong family bonds. Photo by Shankar s. December 2012. Geese in the pool. CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/shankaronline/8347919573/

My post on Red-winged blackbirds received a lot of positive feedback. However, someone did comment that the male blackbird I interviewed seemed sexist. My response was that this bird was an individual, and not representative of his entire species. He also happened to be the head of a harem.

To even things out, I promised that next I would interview a male bird that mates for life. So I chose the noble, the beautiful, the faithful- Canada Goose!

A: Thanks for taking time to talk to me today.

G: No problem, but I can’t stay long. I need to get back to the wife and kids. We had five little ones this spring, and they’re getting to the rambunctious toddler stage!

A: Five kids! Sounds like a handful!

G: They’re certainly hard to keep in line. When we walk down to the river my wife goes first, followed by the kids, and then I bring up the rear. Without fail, one of the kids will veer off the path into the bushes. My job is make sure she stays with the rest of us. There are a lot of predators out there that would like to snack on a baby goose.

A: What predators do you have to watch out for?

G: I’ve seen foxes, coyotes, gulls, ravens and even bears hanging around my nest. Pet dogs also make me nervous.

A: Yikes! What do you do in those situations?

G: My wife sits on the nest and shields the babies with her body, and I’ll try to lure the predator away from the nest. I’ll hiss, open my mouth, and open my wings to make myself look bigger. If that doesn’t work, then I’ll hit them with my wings. They may look light, but they’re strong enough to do some damage. This usually convinces the predator to look for dinner elsewhere.

A: How brave of you! Aren’t you worried about getting eaten yourself?

G: Not really. It takes a lot to kill an adult goose, and there aren’t many predators big enough to take us down. Once you survive childhood, you’re pretty much guaranteed to live for at least 10 years. With all those predators around, childhood is pretty rough. I expect only half of my kids will survive the summer.

A: Interesting. You seem like a very proud father. Are there more babies on the way?

G: Not this year. My wife lays eggs once a year in the early spring. We start early so our babies have time to grow strong enough for the fall migration. We only want what’s best for them.

A: How do you choose where to put the nest?

G: My wife is the one in charge of that. She’s very nostalgic, and every spring we come back to the same place where she was born. If we can successfully raise children there, we’ll keep coming back to that spot. If none of our chicks survive we’ll try a different spot.

A: And who makes the nest?

G: My wife does. She chooses a flat spot so she can see predators coming from a long ways away. She’ll make the nest out of grasses and line it with her own down.

A: Who is in charge of sitting on the eggs?

G: That’s my wife’s job. She sits on them for 25-28 days before they hatch. She’s a wonderful mother. She will only leave them to drink, feed or bathe, and then she’s right back on the nest. I’ll take over for her when she’s away. I love keeping them warm and hearing their soft peeps through the shells.

A: Wait, your babies communicate while they’re still in the egg?

G: Yep, pretty amazing right? It happens close to the time they’re ready to hatch.

A: It seems to me like your wife is doing most of the work! What’s your job in this partnership?

G: How dare you! I’m on guard duty. I stand by faithfully as she sits on the nest, protecting her and our eggs from predators. It’s a very noble calling.

A: Okay. What happens when the eggs hatch?

G: Goslings are ready to take on the world! They are born with their eyes open, and in two days they are swimming, foraging and diving right beside us! They grow up so fast. Even though they like to think they’re independent, they still run back to the nest and under mom’s feathers whenever it is cold, rainy or windy out. It’s quite adorable. They spend a lot of time eating and sleeping, and don’t leave the nest until they are 42-50 days old. Even then they’ll stick to us like glue for the rest of the year, even during migration.

A: Tell me more about migration. Canada Geese are famous for flying in a V shape. Why do you do that?

G: Well, we often migrate in family groups. Migration is no picnic, and we can fly over 1000 km in a single day. The V shape helps us save energy. The leader creates an air current and we all follow in his wake. The leader is usually an older, more experienced goose. It’s tiring to be the leader, so we’ll take turns doing it. The V shape also makes it easy for the group to change direction and speed very quickly, to avoid a passing airplane, for example.

A : I’m sure many of our readers have seen you on golf courses, parks and bike paths. Some people complain that you make a mess with your poop, and ravage perfectly manicured lawns. What do you have to say about this?

G: Yeesh, you humans! You’re never happy. In the early 1900s, the Giant Canada Goose of Southern Manitoba was almost extinct because you hunted us and ate our eggs. You decided that you wanted to save the geese, so you bred us in captivity and released us into places we had never lived before, like BC, Quebec and the Maritime provinces. You protected us with the Migratory Bird Convention, so people need a license to harm us or our eggs. Then you created perfect, open habitats for us, just full of our favorite food; short grass! Now you complain that there are too many of us. Well, you have no-one to blame but yourselves.

A: I guess you’re right. That conservation plan worked a little too well. Why do you like urban areas so much?

G: No predators, lawns everywhere, humans don’t shoot us, what’s not to love?

A: I guess, but can’t you poop somewhere else? It makes the bike paths hazardous.

G: Listen, we’d move if we could, but we can’t. During the summer we can’t fly for 6-8 weeks. This is because we’re moulting, losing our flight feathers and growing new ones. Growing feathers takes a lot of energy, so we need a lot of food. I can easily eat 4 lbs of grass a day and excrete 2 lbs of poop when I’m moulting. I’m sorry we’re making a mess of your lawn, but there’s nothing we can do about it.

A: Well, it makes sense when you put it that way. I imagine not being able to fly is frustrating.

G: It’s not so bad. We can still swim. We spend half of our time in the water anyway, and do most of our feeding on land. And we’re with our family and friends, so life is good.

A: One last question. Is it true that Canada geese mate for life?

G: Of course it’s true, what are you suggesting? One couple we know just celebrated their 20th anniversary!

A: Okay, okay no offense meant! How did you meet your wife?

G: I met my wife when I was 2 years old. I knew instantly that she was ‘the one’ because she was the same size as me. I think you humans call that ‘assortative mating’. We wanted to have kids, but we waited until we had been together a few years before we finally did. I didn’t want to be like my brother, who cheated on his wife while she was incubating their eggs. They were young and foolish, and they ended up breaking up. It usually takes 2-3 years for a strong pair bond to form between a male and a female. It’s uncommon for a couple to start a family before that 2 year mark.

A: Thanks so much for talking with me! Say hi to the wife and kids for me.

G: Will do!

References:
http://www.ec.gc.ca/mbc-com/default.asp?lang=en&n=98A918B1-1
http://www.canadiangeographic.ca/kids/animal-facts/canada_goose.asp
http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Canada_Goose/lifehistory
http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Canada_Goose/lifehistory

Wearing his heart on his sleeve: Interview with a Red-winged Blackbird

I'm not just a pair of  red shoulders! A red-winged blackbird sitting pretty. Photo by Jordan Walmsley. CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/champofsomething/8758859270/-

I’m not just a pair of red shoulders! A red-winged blackbird sitting pretty. Photo by Jordan Walmsley. CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/champofsomething/8758859270/-

If you’ve ever gone near a river in the summer, you’re probably well acquainted with the call of the red-winged blackbird. As a prairie girl who grew up in Calgary seeing very few of these showy birds, I love hearing them whenever I walk along a Ottawa waterway.

However, just like my friend the robin, my knowledge of red-winged blackbirds is limited to:

1) Males have red shoulders
2) Females are brown and less showy than the males
3) Males will aggressively chase other birds and animals out of their territory

The last time I interviewed a bird I talked to a female robin, so to give a fair chance to both sexes I asked a male redwing about being an urban blackbird.

A: I’ve heard you’re one of the most common birds in North America. How does this make you feel?

B: Sweetheart, just because we’re common doesn’t mean we aren’t special. It takes a special bird to be successful in both Alaska and Cuba. Anyways, there is a price to being one of the most abundant birds on the continent.

A: A price? What do you mean?

B: Because there are so many of us we aren’t protected by endangered species laws. It also means that humans don’t feel so bad when they kill us. The majority of blackbird deaths are caused by humans.

A: Why would humans want kill you? You’re so pretty and harmless.

B: You would think so, but in Canada you only see us during the spring and summer when we’re having babies. The other half of the year we go south to relax and refuel. We hang out in huge swarms, sometimes even welcoming other species into our group. We fly around searching for food, and where do we find the most food? In fields of rice, corn and sunflower seeds.

A: Oh. I imagine the farmers who own these fields aren’t happy to see you?

B: You’re right on the money, doll. We can eat 1-2% of a farmer’s crop. For sunflowers, it can be up to 25%. But what can we do? A bird’s got to eat, and there’s all this lovely food sitting there!

A: Are seeds the only thing you eat?

B: No, we have a balanced diet of fruit, insects, spiders and snails. In fact, we often help farmers by eating the insect pests off their crops.

A: What do farmers do when they find you in their field?

B: Some try to chase us away with air canons, loud music, recordings of our alarm calls, and even with remote-controlled airplanes! Others will remove the cattails and bulrushes from the edges of their fields, because those are our favorite spots to hang out and removing them makes us less likely to visit.

A: But some farmers kill you?

B: Yes. Some shoot us or scatter poisoned seeds. The worst is when they spray their crops with surfactants. When our feathers touch these chemicals they can’t keep us warm or dry anymore, and we die from exposure. I’ve seen a few of my friends go this way. It’s not a pretty sight.

A: That’s awful, but I can understand why farmers would want to protect their livelihood. They need to feed their families too.

B: I agree, but obviously I prefer non-lethal methods.

A: Okay, on to something more cheerful! Tell me what happens when you come back to Canada in the spring.

B: It’s actually quite stressful. You have to understand that during the breeding season it’s all about territory. A female doesn’t care about how beautiful you look or how sweetly you swing. All she cares about is finding a safe place where she can hide her nest and raise her chicks. If she likes your territory, she stays. Therefore, the males with the best territories get the best females.

A: Sounds like cut-throat competition! What does an ideal territory look like?

B: Females really like cattails, marshes, and wet shrub lands. Because you humans keep draining wetlands, these ideal places are getting harder to find. We often settle for urban parks and river banks.

A: All of those habitats include water. Why do females like water so much?

B: You have to understand that many animals like eating our eggs and baby birds. I’ve had to chase many raccoons and crows away from my nests, and I don’t always get there in time. If a female builds her grass nest above the water, it’s harder for predators to get at it. So water in the habitat means a greater chance that our babies will survive.

A: Isn’t that dangerous, having babies above the water like that? What if they fell in?

B: Our chicks can swim short distances, so falling out of the nest isn’t a problem.

A: Wow! Can you still swim?

B: No, I lost the ability when I become an adult.

A: Let’s talk about becoming an adult. When did that happen for you?

B: It takes a long time! I was three years old when I finally got my red epaulets. Before that I was a fairly dull teenaged bird with little chance of winning a territory from the older males. I just hung around with my bachelor friends all summer, dreaming of the day when I would have a harem of my own!

A: Excuse me, did you say a harem?

B: Yes ma ’me! We can have 5 to 15 females nesting on our territory at once. We’re definitely not the mate-for-life type.

Protecting that many nests takes a lot of work, I’ll tell you! But when you see those little faces blinking at the sky for the first time, it’s all worth it! Even when the little faces have a strong resemblance to your ugly neighbor.

A: What? Are you implying that your females cheat on you?

B: It’s pretty common knowledge that 25- 50% of the chicks I raise are not my own. Women are pretty good at getting what they want. Like I said, they’re with me for my territory, not necessarily for my genes.

A: That was awkward. Okay, one last question. What’s the deal with your red shoulders? Are they just there to look pretty?

B: How dare you! My red epaulets are state-of-the art signalling devices that I use to defend my territory and my honour. I can grow or shrink them depending on the occasion. You can see this very clearly in this video by The Music of Nature:

For example, if my male neighbor enters my territory, I’ll hunch my shoulders and show as much red as I can, to show him how beautiful I am and that he shouldn’t mess with me. I also show my shoulders when I’m wooing my ladies. However, if I’m feeding peacefully with the boys I will hide my red shoulders so no fights break out.

A: Wow, that’s very interesting. Well, thanks for taking time to talk to me.

B: It was my pleasure. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a territory and a harem to defend.

References:

http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/birding/red-winged-blackbird/?rptregcta=reg_free_np&rptregcampaign=20131016_rw_membership_r1p_intl_ot_w#
http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/184/articles/introduction
http://www.hww.ca/en/species/birds/red-winged-blackbird.html
http://cwf-fcf.org/en/discover-wildlife/flora-fauna/fauna/birds/life-of-a-blackbird.html
http://www.birdcanada.com/ravishing-red-winged-blackbirds/
http://www.allaboutbirds.org/Page.aspx?pid=1807
http://www.wild-bird-watching.com/Red-winged-Blackbird.html#sthash.jMMAIk7F.dpbs
http://www.arkive.org/red-winged-blackbird/agelaius-phoeniceus/
http://www.learner.org/jnorth/tm/rwbb/RedwingPoisoning.html

The secret life of American Robins

Robins eat more than just worms! Photo by Dendroica cerulea, CC https://www.flickr.com/photos/dendroica/11485240434/

Robins eat more than just worms! Photo by Dendroica cerulea, CC https://www.flickr.com/photos/dendroica/11485240434/

 

As the weather warms, I’ve been seeing dozens of robins hopping along my lawn. Even though I’ve grown up around robins my whole life, I realized that didn’t know much about them. In fact, I think I only knew three things:

1) They have a red breast
2) They eat worms
3) They lay blue eggs

This would never do. I decided to learn more about the American Robin. I asked one the female robins in the vicinity to tell me about her life, straight from the bird’s beak, so to speak.

Me: Tell me about your childhood.

Merle: There’s not much to tell. I was born in a nest with two other siblings. I was constantly hungry. I needed food every 15 minutes from sunrise to sunset. I certainly ran my parents ragged!

Me: Tell me more about your siblings.

Merle: Well, neither of them survived to adulthood. One was eaten by a crow and the other was eaten a few days later by a squirrel. It was sad at the time, but you get used to it, considering that only about 20% of chicks ever become adults. I was one of the lucky ones. There are lots of animals out there that love to sink their teeth into a robin. Circle of life and all that.

Me: When did you leave the nest?

Merle: About two weeks after I hatched. At that point my parents started getting babies on the brain. They kicked me out so they could lay a new batch of eggs in my nest. They were big into recycling. It did take Mom 5 days to build that nest, after all.

Me: Sounds rough! 14 days is pretty young, isn’t it?

Merle: I guess. I could fly, so that was a start. My parents were pretty good about bringing me food for an additional four weeks after I officially left the nest. Then I was really on my own.

Me: Did it get lonely?

Merle: Not really. I joined a huge roost with a bunch of other robins. We would hang out, forage and sleep together. I spent most of the fall and winter with them, eating berries and dried fruit hanging from bushes.

Me: Wait a minute, I thought robins only ate worms?

Merle: Where would we get worms in the winter? We eat fruit in the winter. I’ve even seen my friends drunk if they’ve eaten too many honeysuckle berries! For the record, during the spring and summer I generally eat insects, earthworms and snails in the morning and fruit in the afternoon.

Me: But I never see robins in the winter! Where are you hiding?

Merle: Well we aren’t hopping along your lawns, that’s for sure. Sometimes we migrate, but if there is still food in our breeding area we stick around. We hang out in large groups in trees, barns, or under bridges. Once spring comes males start staking out their territory and courting females. That’s when you start to see us again.

Me: Why does your behaviour change so drastically in the spring?

Merle: Breeding requires a lot of energy. A pair’s territory is basically a pantry where they can constantly collect food to feed their growing family. It’s the male’s job to defend this territory, flying at intruders to scare them away or dive-bombing them if necessary.

Me: Why do robins sometimes run into my window?

Merle: If it’s a male, they may see their reflection as an intruder and try to scare them away. Usually they are a bit stunned after hitting a window, but recover quickly. If you want to prevent it from happening, there are many ways you can make your windows visible to birds. Check them out at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s website.

Me: If the males defend the territory, what are your breeding responsibilities?

Merle: It is my job to find a good location for the nest, usually in a tree branch, light fixture or gutter. I also build the nest, pushing grass into cup shape using the wrist of one of my wings. Then I reinforce it with twigs and mud. I may have two to three clutches of eggs in this nest in one year, if there’s enough food available.

Me: Last question, what is your favorite thing to sing?

Merle: Goodness, females don’t sing! Only the males do that, to attract us during mating season. The crooners get you every time.

There you have it, straight from the bird herself! Hopefully you’ll see the robins in the park a little differently now. And speaking of parks, free guided neighborhood tours are taking place all around the world next weekend on May 3 and 4. Called Jane’s Walks after urbanist Jane Jacobs, they are a great way to see your community from a different perspective. Find one in your city  Hope to see you out there!

Sources:

Cornell Lab of Ornithology. American Robin. http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/american_robin/lifehistory#at_behavior

Encyclopedia Britannica. robin. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/505655/robin

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Living With Wildlife: Robins. http://wdfw.wa.gov/living/robins.html#attacking

 

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