I have often found sublime pleasure in watching the most common birds to be found; it is through the actions of these typically drab natives that I have seen the majority of interesting behavioral tidbits. But without getting into the relative merits of chickadees versus nuthatches at the bird feeder, I would like to turn my focus to a ubiquitous bird that is usually overlooked, sometimes despised, and often actively persecuted: the Canada Goose.
Nothing says Spring like geese charging from one end of a pond to another, hell-bent on goosing another goose that happened to stray a bit too near. The air, cacophonous with honks, is alive despite the freezing temperatures that have returned to Ithaca, and the only birds that are still acting like it’s Spring are the geese. The best part of observing these battles is that there is a clear outcome at the end of a chase: one pair wins, and an interloper loses. In fact, the winning pair often gloats following a successful defense, performing what is scientifically referred to as a “Triumphgeshrei” or Triumph Ceremony (named by uber-behaviorist Konrad Lorenz). In this display, the victorious geese wave their necks and honk loudly at one another. It’s sort of like Hulk Hogan climbing up onto the ropes and beckoning to the crowds for cheers by ostentatiously cupping his hand to his ear. This display is also used as a greeting following a long separation (e.g. sleeping or foraging separately).
The Birds of North America, a reference resource for the species of birds that live in North America, describe Canada Geese as ruling by “tyranny“, which I find especially endearing. To watch a goose purposefully approach another goose from tens of meters away, its head flipping from side-to-side, flashing those white patches, is to know the singular fury of a goose. And there’s rarely something more entertaining (and indicative of Spring’s presence) than the appearance of pairs of belligerent geese on ponds that once held flocks of tens to hundreds…I guess we’ll have to chalk it up to the hormones.