The Wild Geese of Canada
One year I lived in the northern part of Canada, near a blue lake, with green trees all around. That part of Canada is also the home of the wild geese, and I longed to hear their "honk." When the wild geese come, it means that the snow will soon melt, and the game will be back in the brown hills, that the winter is over and the warm, bright days will be here. This is the message that the honk of the wild geese, flying in the sky, brought to our ancestors thousands of years ago, and this is the message that I waited for.
I wanted to hear the call of the honkers. But there were no wild geese on my lake, so I brought a pair of blacknecks from another lake, and they made their nest on a little island on my lake. Soon, in a bed of soft gray down, lay six great ivory eggs. The patient mother sat on them four weeks without rest, except in the afternoon, when she left them for half an hour. And round and round that island the gander swam about, like a war-ship on patrol. I tried to land and see the nest one day. The goose sitting on the eggs quacked to warn the gander of danger. There was a long, sharp hiss, and before my boat could touch the shore, the gander was between me and the island and faced me, ready to fight. Evidently, I could land on their island only over his dead body. So I left them in peace.
At last the six shells opened, and six golden chicks peeped out. The next day they left the nest, — the mother first and the chicks close behind her, and last the father. This order they always kept. The mother always leads, and the father follows — yes, obeys. And what a brave guard he was! The gander will fight anything alive, if his little ones are in danger, and there are very few animals or birds of his size that can face him.
So the flock grew big and strong. In three months they were almost as big as the old ones. In four months their wings were strong enough to fly. Their voices were still small and thin, and they did not yet have the deep honk of the older geese. Then they began to make short flights across the lake. As their wings grew stronger, their voices became deeper and deeper.
Soon the thing I dreamed of happened, — the flock of wild geese flew up into the air and "honked". But each time they came back to their home water that was also mine. Now their flights were longer and higher. But they always came back to the lake.
One day, at the end of September, when the leaves began to fall, flocks of small birds flew over the lake. Above them were flocks of wild geese from the far north on their way to the warm south, and I heard their loud "honk". The wild geese on my lake looked up and answered, and at once began to line up on the lake. Their mother led the way, swimming fast and faster. Then she quacked, then called and then their voices rose. "Honk, honk!" they cried, and they flew away to join the other honkers in the southern sky.
"Honk, honk, honk!" they shouted as they flew. But — what! The mother was not in the line. She still splashed on the surface of the lake. And now their loud "On, on! Come on!" was answered by the mother, and the father too, — "Come back! Come back!" So the young ones returned, splashing down on the lake at the call of the mother.
"What is it?" they called all together, as they swam about. "Why don't we go? What's the matter, mother?" The mother could not tell. She only knew that when she gave the signal for all to fly, she could not rise with the rest. The young ones rose, but the old ones, their strong leaders, could not rise.
Then the mother led them to another part of the lake that was longer and wider. She lined up her flock again, and passed the word, "Now, now," and swam on toward the south. The young ones passed the word, "Now, now," and swam, and the father at the rear gave the deep, strong, "Now, now," and swam. So they all swam. Then they spread their wings, rose higher and higher, and honked louder and louder. Up, up, they went, above the tree-tops. But again, for some strange reason, the mother was not there, and the father, too, remained behind on the lake. Again they heard the call to retreat, — "Come back, come back!" And the flock, obedient, returned and splashed about on the lake again.
Not once, but twenty times a day, I saw them line up and rise, but each time they came back at the mother's call. The bond of love and duty was stronger than the annual custom. Their strongest law was to obey.
After a while the flock settled down to spend the winter on the lake. They made many long, far flights, but their duty to the older geese was strong and brought them back. So the winter passed. That summer there were new young ones, and in September they were on the lake with their older brothers and sisters. In October the birds flew south again. Again the blacknecks lined up on the lake at the signal from the mother to "fly". The same scene was repeated, but now there were a dozen geese who rose and then came back at the mother's call of "retreat".
So it went on through the month of October. Then, at the end of October, a strange thing happened. One day, for the hundredth time at least, the mother passed the word to rise, and all the flock flew up. Yes! The mother, too, and her honk was louder than ever. She lined up all her young ones and they flew away in one great arrow flock. And so they flew, higher and higher, above the trees, toward the south, and soon disappeared in the blue sky. All in vain the gander on the lake honked and honked, "Come back! Come back!" As before, he could not rise. The young geese followed the mother.
All that winter the gander sat alone on the ice. Sometimes a hawk passed above, and the watchful eye of the blackneck turned a little to look at the flyer. Once or twice he honked, but his "Honk, honk!" was always short. It was indeed sad to see him then, for I thought his family never would come back. He did not take another mate, for the wild goose mates only once during his whole life. Poor old blackneck, he was very lonely.
The bright days came and the snow and ice began to melt. Again there were honkers in the sky, and the gander, swimming in the open part of the lake, answered and called, — "Honk, honk, come back. Come back!" But the flocks passed on.
The days became still brighter, and the gander swam about in the lake. How we pitied him! Then April came and covered the woods with green. Old blackneck splashed and swam about, and watched and answered such sounds that touched him. Then, one day, when the wood was alive with the song of birds, the great event happened. Old blackneck, always waiting, waiting, suddenly gazed up. The feathers on his neck rose, he was so excited, and he honked and honked, louder and louder. And as he honked, the answer came — from the sky — and grew louder. Then a wonderful flock of thirteen wild geese came sailing from the blue sky — lower and lower — and settled on the lake. There they crowded round their father, and chattered softly.
There was no doubt of it. The young ones were now grown up and they seemed strange, but we recognized the mother. She came back, and the faithful pair still live on the lake.
The autumn sends the flock far away, while the father remains on guard. But the bond that binds them all, and sends them off and brings them back is stronger than the fear of death. So I have learned to love and respect the honker wild geese, although the long, slow test of time has given a minor role to this brave, fearless, fighting male. His place is the last of all, for, by some law that does not change, the young ones obey the mother. Yet they return to the father each time.