As the crow flies, my family’s house is less than 15 miles from New York City, but we’re surrounded by so much wooded land that it’s common to see everything from deer, turkeys, and bats to foxes and coyotes. Our yard also backs up to a pond, a few acres big, that 100 years ago served as the town reservoir. Now it’s populated by carp, bullfrogs, snapping turtles, snakes, mallard ducks, and every spring, a raucous colony of Canadian geese. Some years, I’ve counted close to 50 birds.
They arrive soon after the pond ice breaks up, and the snow is mostly melted, but before anything has begun to bloom, usually in early March. Suddenly, mornings are filled with barking honks as the birds fly low over our roof and land, skidding across the water’s surface, sinking slightly and rising back up on their own swell before settling in. The rest of the day is punctuated with the hissing and wing flapping and charging of males as they fight, or by the dance of a male and a female, moving in tight circles around each other, the male making plaintive honks that sound like please baby, please baby, please baby. This goes on until dusk approaches, when the whole group takes to the air and flies off, to spend the night on a larger, safer body of water.
For weeks, this pattern repeats. Every morning, they fly in, and every evening, out. The fighting among the males eventually thins their number until there are only two—a mating pair. The couple takes possession of the pond for the rest of the season, gliding the length and width gracefully and quietly, scooping up water and nibbling duck weed, and coming ashore only to eat and to poop. If all goes well, a nest will appear near the edge of the water. If not, the pair flies off together and doesn’t return.
I’m not a fan of geese. Certainly not these, which don’t seem truly wild because they are non-migratory. But over the last decade, I have learned to tolerate them. When we first moved in, they were such a nuisance—taking over my lawn like binge eaters with a deadline, and blanketing every square inch with runny green and white shit—that I tried everything to get rid of them. I ran out the back door like a crazy woman, shouting and waving my arms. I planted a stake and tied one of my daughter’s shiny sparkly streamers to it, hoping the wind would catch it and startle them. I asked to borrow the neighbor’s dog. I thought about buying a flare gun. Nothing worked for long. Finally, I made a stupidly simple observation: the geese weren’t flying into my yard, they were walking into it from the pond. So I installed a two-foot high wire fence along the edge of the water—an ugly and flimsy barrier against a 30-pound bird, but it works.
With the geese at a comfortable distance, I began to appreciate the grace of their long slender necks, the stark beauty of their black and white feathers. The few years that a pair has been successful, I have felt a quiet cheer watching their nest-building. But I have yet to see any goslings. The eggs are destroyed within days of being laid. One year it was a heron stalking the nest; another, a raccoon must have attacked in the middle of the night. Nothing much is ever left behind, just a few bits of delicate white shell tossed about in the weeds.
By late May, all the geese will have departed, to other bodies of water—larger ponds, or the Hudson River—where they molt and are unable to fly for a few weeks. I won’t see them again until the following spring.
Eight years ago, in the middle of one spring night, I was pulled from a deep sleep by the screams of geese, wrenching and mournful, the sound of two birds frantic to protect their nest. In the morning, I found large pieces of cracked shell littering the nest by the shore, but no shred of their contents. The geese were on the water, stroking tight circles around each other. I drank my coffee. I warmed my free hand in my coat pocket. I felt a pinch of sorrow for the lost eggs, but it was hard to spare, because upstate, 350 miles away in Rochester, my mother was dying.
The previous summer, when she and I went to her 50th high school reunion, seeing friends she had known since kindergarten, she hadn’t felt herself. She had lost weight, and complained of stomach upset. She thought it was food poisoning. At a cousin’s wedding a month later, she still wasn’t feeling right. By September, she was in the hospital with an intestinal blockage. The surgeon removed a tumor.
My two sisters and I were stunned. Three years earlier, our father had died unexpectedly at 62 from undiagnosed heart disease, and though our mother was sidelined by immense grief and two back-to-back hip replacements, she had appeared to be righting herself, returning to what we called the “new normal.” She had a job that challenged her, she traveled with Elderhostel to New Zealand. She visited us and her grandchildren, socialized with a close circle of friends, and was active at church. We thought things were looking up.
The tumor was not benign. My mother needed chemo. And none of her doctors could say which kind. One possibility was small-intestine cancer, not horrible because the cure rate was decent. But an expert at Memorial Sloan-Kettering said there was a chance it was a metastasis from somewhere else. She was right.
We had sixteen months with my mother, from January, when she got the correct diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, to April of the following year. All that time, my sisters and I played a round robin of trips to Rochester, accompanying our mother to more surgery or chemo or doctor visits, fitting them around our own busy lives. Toward the end, our uncle—my mom’s younger brother—and his wife moved in, and we maintained a schedule that made sure she was never alone.
That sad and sorrowful spring, I didn’t pay much attention to the pond. After my mother’s funeral, I made a few more trips to help clean out her house—giving things away to family members or selling them in an estate sale or tossing them into a Dumpster parked in the driveway—an overwhelming and arduous task that did nothing to bring closure. At the end of the summer, I returned home, bereft and empty. There was still a small group of geese hanging around. They finally left, except for one, and I soon understood why. There was a large chunk of wing sticking straight out from its body. It looked awkward and painful, but the bird didn’t seem at all bothered, and kept placidly eating my grass, though it moved away whenever I tried to get close.
I found a wildlife rehabilitation group on the internet, and asked for advice, emailing them a picture of the goose. A volunteer called me and explained that it probably had “angel wing,” a deformity due to either overfeeding or injury. I wondered how it had happened. Had a neighbor been throwing bread into the pond? Had the bird arrived intact, but then been attacked by another goose or animal? I had no idea.
An injured wild animal in my backyard, needing compassion and help, was the last thing I felt capable of dealing with. But I had to. This one couldn’t fly. It was alone and time was running out. If not relocated soon to a protected place with easy access to food, it would die. Even worse than an injured goose in my backyard would be a dead goose.
The volunteer at the rescue group said they had a wild bird refuge 20 miles north, and they would help me for free, though a donation would be appreciated. A guy with a net-gun came out on a Sunday. We stood in my backyard, watching the goose, about 25 feet away. It was grazing, pulling grass straight up with its bill and angling its head to swallow, undisturbed by our presence.
“This will make a loud pop,” he explained, gesturing with the gun, which looked like it had come out of a cartoon.
He held it in front of him with both hands, aimed, and pulled the trigger. The noise reverberated off the back of my house. Yards of light gossamer netting shot straight up, catching the air and floating for a moment before coming to rest half on the bird and half on empty grass. The bird began honking, and moving in a tight frantic spiral, arcing its healthy wing in a desperate effort to fly.
“It’s going to get free,” I said, a little too hopeful.
But the guy moved in and quickly muscled the bird into submission, hoisting it under one arm, and hustling down the driveway, gathering up netting as he went. It’s been many years, but I can still see his blue Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, ancient but sturdy and useful, a good car for rescuing animals. I expected him to carefully place the bird into some kind of special cage or container, but he simply opened the trunk, stuffed in the goose and netting, and slammed the lid. Startled, I asked if it would be able to breathe. He just shrugged. I had $50 in my pocket. I handed it to him. He took it without a word and drove off.
About the Author: C.W. Accetta grew up in Rochester, New York, and now writes and lives with her family outside New York City. Her writing has appeared in Writer’s Digest and at SmithMag.net. She is a founding member of the Rivertown Writers Collective, a longtime participant in the Wild Geese Writers workshop, and is currently at work on a novel.