‘Mother Goose’ and her wild island family

  • “Mother Goose” and her new goose family on a first paddle around the retention pond. PAT FOSTER-TURLEY/FOR THE NEWS-LEADER
    “Mother Goose” and her new goose family on a first paddle around the retention pond. PAT FOSTER-TURLEY/FOR THE NEWS-LEADER

Watching the seasonal Canada goose show in our backyard is getting to be a spring routine for Bucko and me. This year, with us spending more time at home, we have been more involved than usual. Even the little bits of excitement in their lives became exciting in our own.

Take the early spring goose gatherings in the pond, for instance. Beginning in early March, we were awakened most mornings by loud honking as the neighborhood geese started congregating in our pond. This seems to be a frantic time for these roaming birds, when they socialize with others of their kind and pair off for the season.

Although pair bonds are solid throughout most of their lives, young geese need to find their mates during their first few years, so gatherings like these are necessary. During the height of this goose social season, as many as eight geese at once were honking and flapping their wings, even getting into full-scale fights that involved dragging one another under water. One morning, a goose fight even happened in the street in front of our house, with one goose chased right up to our front door. Watching all this from our coronavirus stay-at-home vantage points was much better than screen time!

Eventually, things settled down and we had once again a mother goose sitting on her eggs on the pond outfall, right across from our yard. There really wasn’t much to watch at this point. The female goose spread her wings over the eggs. She moved the eggs around now and then and plucked feathers from her breast to line the shallow nest, but that’s about it. Every so often, she would disappear from the nest. She must have gone out foraging a bit, but mostly she just sat there. The patience of a brooding bird is outstanding!

In past years, a goose has chosen this same spot to nest, and we think it’s most likely the same one. This nesting site does not have much to recommend it at first glance. It is right next to a fence, and just beyond that fence is the new Simmons Road Amelia River-to-Sea walking and biking trail. With other exercise options closed to us, many people passed by the nesting spot just feet from the mother goose, but she seemed oblivious. As for the exercisers, they had no clue that a nesting goose was just a pace’s distance from them.

This year, the male goose did not stay near the female to protect her. For a while, we thought she was a widow, but it turns out he was around the whole time, diligently protecting her from a distance and staying out of our sight.

One evening, finally, we saw the geese together near the nest, and three little yellow goslings were with them. Sadly, one egg remained in the nest, never to hatch.

The next morning, the parents took their tribe on a paddle around the pond, leading them over to the edge of the woods, where they could find things to peck at and eat. These babies are precocial and can feed themselves shortly after hatching. This is in contrast to altricial birds, like osprey, that need to be supplied with food by their parents for weeks.

This mother goose knows about our bird feeders, where grain falls to the ground, and most years she brings her new family over to us. We usually chase adult geese away from the feeders when we see them – we don’t want to encourage these big, messy birds to consider our yard their home – but now we hoped she would bring the babies in the yard once again. We were too late.

We came home and saw the family retreating back into the pond after hitting the feeders, and then they were gone. As in past years, this goose family did not linger in our pond very long after hatching. They were only with us for about 48 hours.

The goslings can’t fly, but they are good at walking. Once the nest is empty, it is not home for them. Their “home” is following their parents wherever they walk, and geese from all over this part of Amelia Island seem to walk to the retention pond on Will Hardee Road. This time of year, it becomes a regular preschool for multiple geese families. Last time we went by there, there were two pairs of geese, one with four goslings and another with three. Could that be our family? No matter what, we will look forward to another tale of “Mother Goose” next year.

Pat Foster-Turley is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations.