John James Audubon’s Birds of America

Although the Canada Goose is considered as a northern species, the number of individuals that remain at all seasons in the milder latitudes, and in different portions of the United States, fully entitles this bird to be looked upon as a permanent resident there. It is found to breed sparingly at the present day, by many of the lakes, lagoons, and large streams of our Western Districts, on the Missouri, the Mississippi, the lower parts of the Ohio, on Lake Erie, the lakes farther north, and in several large pools situated in the interior of the eastern parts of the States of Massachusetts and Maine. As you advance farther toward the east and north, you find it breeding more abundantly. While on my way to Labrador, I found it in the Magdeleine Islands, early in June, sitting on its eggs. In the Island of Anticosti there is a considerable stream, near the borders of which great numbers are said to be annually reared; and in Labrador these birds breed in every suitable marshy plain. The greater number of those which visit us from still more northern regions, return in the vernal season, like many other species, to the dismal countries which gave them birth.

Few if any of these birds spend the winter in Nova Scotia, my friend Mr. THOMAS MACCULLOCH having informed me that he never saw one about Pictou at that period. In spring, as they proceed northward, thousands are now and then seen passing high in the air; but in autumn, the flocks are considerably smaller, and fly much lower. During their spring movements, the principal places at which they stop to wait for milder days are Bay Chaleur, the Madeleine Islands, Newfoundland, and Labrador, at all of which some remain to breed and spend the summer.

The general spring migration of the Canada Goose, may be stated to commence with the first melting of the snows in our Middle and Western Districts, or from the 20th of March to the end of April; but the precise time of its departure is always determined by the advance of the season, and the vast flocks that winter in the great savannahs or swampy prairies south west of the Mississippi, such as exist in Opellousas, on the borders of the Arkansas river, or in the dismal “Everglades” of the Floridas, are often seen to take their flight, and steer their course northward, a month earlier than the first of the above mentioned periods. It is indeed probable that the individuals of a species most remote from the point at which the greater number ultimately assemble, commence their flight earlier than those which have passed the winter in stations nearer to it.

It is my opinion that all the birds of this species, which leave our States and territories each spring for the distant north, pair before they depart. This, no doubt, necessarily results from the nature of their place of summer residence, where the genial season is so short as scarcely to afford them sufficient time for bringing up their young and renewing their plumage, before the rigours of advancing winter force them to commence their flight towards milder countries. This opinion is founded on the following facts: I have frequently observed large flocks of Geese, in ponds, on marshy grounds, or even on dry sand bars, the mated birds renewing their courtship as early as the month of January, while the other individuals would be contending or coquetting for hours every day, until all seemed satisfied with the choice they had made, after which, although they remained together, any person could easily perceive that they were careful to keep in pairs. I have observed also that the older the birds, the shorter were the preliminaries of their courtship, and that the barren individuals were altogether insensible to the manifestations of love and mutual affection that were displayed around them. The bachelors and old maids, whether in regret, or not caring to be disturbed by the bustle, quietly moved aside, and lay down on the grass or sand at some distance from the rest; and whenever the flocks rose on wing, or betook themselves to the water, these forlorn birds always kept behind. This mode of preparing for the breeding season has appeared to me the more remarkable, that, on reaching the place appointed for their summer residence, the birds of a flock separate in pairs, which form their nests and rear their young at a considerable distance from each other.

It is extremely amusing to witness the courtship of the Canada Goose in all its stages; and let me assure you, reader, that although a Gander does not strut before his beloved with the pomposity of a Turkey, or the grace of a Dove, his ways are quite as agreeable to the female of his choice. I can imagine before me one who has just accomplished the defeat of another male after a struggle of half an hour or more. He advances gallantly towards the object of contention, his head scarcely raised an inch from the ground, his bill open to its full stretch, his fleshy tongue elevated, his eyes darting fiery glances, and as be moves he hisses loudly, while the emotion which he experiences, causes his quills to shake, and his feathers to rustle. Now he is close to her who in his eyes is all loveliness; his neck bending gracefully in all directions, passes all round her, and occasionally touches her body; and as she congratulates him on his victory, and acknowledges his affection, they move their necks in a hundred curious ways. At this moment fierce jealousy urges the defeated gander to renew his efforts to obtain his love; he advances apace, his eye lowing with the fire of rage; he shakes his broad wings, ruffles up his whole plumage, and as he rushes on the foe, hisses with the intensity of anger. The whole flock seems to stand amazed, and opening up a space, the birds gather round to view the combat. The bold bird who has been caressing his mate, scarcely deigns to take notice of his foe, but seems to send a scornful glance towards him. He of the mortified feelings, however, raises his body, half opens his sinewy wings, and with a powerful blow, sends forth his defiance. The affront cannot be borne in the presence of so large a company, nor indeed is there much disposition to bear it in any circumstances; the blow is returned with vigour, the aggressor reels for a moment, but he soon recovers, and now the combat rages. Were the weapons more deadly, feats of chivalry would now be performed; as it is, thrust and blow succeed each other like the strokes of hammers driven by sturdy forgers. But now, the mated gander has caught hold of his antagonist head with his bill; no bull dog could cling faster to his victim; he squeezes him with all the energy of rage, lashes him with his powerful wings, and at length drives him away, spreads out his pinions, runs with joy to his mate, and fills the air with cries of exultation.

But now, see yonder, not a couple, but half a dozen of ganders are engaged in battle! Some desperado, it seems, has fallen upon a mated bird, and several bystanders, as if sensible of the impropriety of such conduct, rush to the assistance of the wronged one. How they strive and tug, biting, and striking with their wings! and how their feathers fly about! Exhausted, abashed, and mortified, the presumptuous intruder retreats in disgrace; there he lies, almost breathless, on the sand!

Such are the conflicts of these ardent lovers, and so full of courage and of affection towards their females are they, that the approach of a male invariably ruffles their tempers as well as their feathers. No sooner has the goose laid her first egg, than her bold mate stands almost erect by her side, watching even the rustling sound of the breeze. The least noise brings from him a sound of anger. Should he spy a racoon making its way among the grass, he walks up to him undauntedly, burls a vigorous blow at him, and drives him instantly away. Nay, I doubt if man himself, unarmed, would come off unscathed in such an encounter. The brave gander does more; for, if imminent danger excite him, he urges his mate to fly off, and resolutely remains near the nest until he is assured of her safety, when he also betakes himself to flight, mocking as it were by his notes his disappointed enemy.

Suppose all to be peace and quiet around the fond pair, and the female to be sitting in security upon her eggs. The nest is placed near the bank of a noble stream or lake; the clear sky is spread over the scene, the bright beams glitter on the waters, and a thousand odorous flowers give beauty to the swamp which of late was so dismal. The gander passes to and fro over the liquid element, moving as if lord of the waters; now he inclines his head with a graceful curve, now sips to quench his thirst; and, as noontide has arrived, he paddles his way towards the shore, to relieve for awhile his affectionate and patient consort. The lisping sounds of their offspring are heard through the shell; their little bills have formed a breach in the inclosing walls; full of life, and bedecked with beauty, they come forth, with tottering steps and downy covering. Toward the water they now follow their careful parent, they reach the border of the stream, their mother already floats on the loved element, one after another launches forth, and now the flock glides gently along. What a beautiful sight! Close by the grassy margin, the mother slowly leads her innocent younglings; to one she shews the seed of the floating grass, to another points out the crawling slug. Her careful eye watches the cruel turtle, the garish, and the pike, that are lurking for their prey, and, with head inclined, she glances upwards to the Eagle or the Gull that are hovering over the water in search of food. A ferocious bird dashes at her voting ones; she instantly plunges beneath the surface, and, in the twinkling of an eye, her brood disappear after her; now they are among the thick rushes, with nothing above water but their little bills. The mother is marching towards the land, living lisped to her brood in accents so gentle that none but they and her mate can understand their import, and all are safely lodged under cover until the disappointed Eagle or Gull bears away.

More than six weeks have now elapsed. The down of the goslings, which was at first soft and tufty, has become coarse and hairlike. Their wings are edged with quills, and their bodies bristled with feathers. They have increased in size, and, living in the midst of abundance, they have become fat, so that on shore they make their way with difficulty, and as they are yet unable to fly, the greatest care is required to save them from their numerous enemies. They grow apace, and now the burning days of August are over. They are able to fly with ease from one shore to another, and as each successive night the hoarfrosts cover the country, and the streams are closed over by the ice, the family joins that in their neighbourhood, which is also joined by others. At length they spy the advance of a snow storm, when the ganders with one accord sound the order for their departure.

After many wide circlings, the flock has risen high in the thin air, and an hour or more is spent in teaching the young the order in which they are to move. But now, the host has been marshalled, and off it starts, shewing, as it proceeds, at one time an extended front, at another a single lengthened file, and now arraying itself in an angular form. The old males advance in front, the females follow, the young come in succession according to their strength, the weakest forming the rear. Should one feel fatigued, his position is changed in the ranks, and he assumes a place in the wake of another, who cleaves the air before him; perhaps the parent bird flies for awhile by his side to encourage him. Two, three, or more days elapse before they reach a secure resting place. The fat with which they were loaded at their departure has rapidly wasted; they are fatigued, and experience the keen gnawings of hunger; but now they spy a wide estuary, towards which they direct their course. Alighting on the water, they swim to the beach, stand, and gaze around them; the young full of joy, the old full of fear, for well are they aware that many foes have been waiting their arrival. Silent all night remains the flock, but not inactive; with care they betake themselves to the grassy shores, where they allay the cravings of appetite, and recruit their wasted strength. Soon as the early dawn lightens the surface of the deep they rise into the air, extend their lines, and proceed southward, until arriving in some place where they think they may be enabled to rest in security, they remain during the winter. At length, after many annoyances, they joyfully perceive the return of spring, and prepare to fly away from their greatest enemy man.

The Canada Goose often arrives in our Western and Middle Districts as early as the beginning of September, and does not by means confine itself to the sea shore. Indeed, my opinion is, that for every hundred seen during the winter along our large bays and estuaries, as many thousands may be found in the interior of the country, where they frequent the large ponds, rivers, and wet savannahs. During my residence in the State of Kentucky, I never spent a winter without observing immense flocks of these birds, especially in the neighbourbood of Henderson, where I have killed many hundreds of them, as well as on the Falls of the Ohio at Louisville, and in the neighbouring country, which abounds in ponds overgrown with grasses and various species of Nympheae, on the seeds of which they greedily feed. Indeed all the lakes situated within a few miles of the Missouri and Mississippi, or their tributaries, are still amply supplied with them from the middle of autumn to the beginning of spring. In these places, too, I have found them breeding, although sparingly. It seems to me more than probable, that the species bred abundantly in the temperate parts of North America before the white population extended over them. This opinion is founded on the relations of many old and respectable citizens of our country, and in particular of General GEORGE CLARK, one of the first settlers on the banks of the Ohio, who, at a very advanced age, assured me that, fifty years before the period when our conversation took place (about seventy five years from the present time), wild geese were so plentiful at all seasons of the year, that he was in the habit of having them shot to feed his soldiers, then garrisoned near Vincennes, in the present State of Indiana. My father, who travelled down the Ohio shortly after BRADDOCK defeat, related the same to me; and I, as well as many persons now residing at Louisville in Kentucky, well remember that, twenty five or thirty years ago, it was quite easy to procure young Canada Geese in the ponds around. So late as 1819, I have met with the nests, eggs, and young of this species near Henderson. However, as I have already said, the greater number remove far north to breed. I have never heard of an instance of their breeding in the Southern States. Indeed, so uncongenial to their constitution seems the extreme heat of these parts to be, that the attempts made to rear them in a state of domestication very rarely succeed.

The Canada Goose, when it remains with us to breed, begins to form its nest in March, making choice of some retired place not far from the water, generally among the rankest grass, and not unfrequently under a bush. It is carefully formed of dry plants of various kinds, and is of a large size, flat, and raised to the height of several inches. Once only did I find a nest elevated above the ground. It was placed on the stump of a large tree, standing in the centre of a small pond, about twenty feet high, and contained five eggs. As the spot was very secluded, I did not disturb the birds, anxious as I was to see in what manner they should convey the young to the water. But in this I was disappointed, for, on going to the nest, near the time at which I expected the process of incubation to terminate, I had the mortification to find that a racoon, or some other animal, had destroyed the whole of the eggs, and that the birds had abandoned the place. The greatest number of eggs which I have found in the nest of this species was nine, which I think is more by three than these birds usually lay in a wild state. In the nests of those which I have had in a domesticated state, I have sometimes counted as many as eleven, several of them, however, usually proving unproductive. The eggs measure, on an average, 3 1/2 inches by 2 1/2 are thick shelled, rather smooth, and of a very dull yellowish green colour. The period of incubation is twenty eight days. They never have more than one brood in a season, unless their eggs are removed or broken at an early period.

The young follow their parents to the water a day or two after they have issued from the egg, but generally return to land to repose in the sunshine in the evening, and pass the night there under their mother, who employs all imaginable care to ensure their comfort and safety, as does her mate, who never leaves her during incubation for a longer time than is necessary for procuring food, and takes her place at intervals. Both remain with their brood until the following spring. It is during the breeding season that the gander displays his courage and strength to the greatest advantage. I knew one that appeared larger than usual, and of which all the lower parts were of a rich cream colour. It returned three years in succession to a large pond a few miles from the mouth of Green river in Kentucky, and whenever I visited the nest, it seemed to look upon me with utter contempt. It would stand in a stately attitude, until I reached within a few yards of the nest, when suddenly lowering its head, and shaking it as if it were dislocated from the neck, it would open its wings, and launch into the air, flying directly at me. So daring was this fine fellow, that in two instances he struck me a blow with one of his whigs on the right arm, which, for an instant, I thought was broken. I observed that immediately after such an effort to defend his nest and mate, the would run swiftly towards them, pass his head and neck several times over and around the female, and again assume his attitude of defiance.

Always intent on making experiments, I thought of endeavouring to conciliate this bold son of the waters. For this purpose I always afterwards took with me several ears of corn, which I shelled, and threw towards him. It remained untouched for several days; but I succeeded at last, and before the end of a week both birds fed freely on the grain even in my sight! I felt much pleasure on this occasion, and repeating my visit daily, found, that before the eggs were hatched, they would allow me to approach within a few feet of them, although they never suffered me to touch them. Whenever I attempted this the male met my fingers with his bill, and bit me so severely that I gave it up. The great beauty and courage of the male rendered me desirous of obtaining possession of him. I had marked the time at which the young were likely to appear, and on the preceding day I baited with corn a large coop made of twine, and waited until he should enter. He walked in, I drew the string, and he was my prisoner. The next morning the female was about to lead her offspring to the river, which was distant nearly half a mile, when I caught the whole of the young birds, and with them the mother tool, who came within reach in attempting to rescue one of her brood, and had them taken home. There I took a cruel method of preventing their escape, for with a knife I pinioned each of them on the same side, and turned them loose in my garden, where I had a small but convenient artificial pond. For more than a fortnight, both the old birds appeared completely cowed. Indeed, for some days I felt apprehensive that they would abandon