April 2005

Barbara J. King

features

How to See Geese: Bernd Heinrich’s Ode to Peep

Talking some years ago with Jane Goodall at her home in Tanzania and near mine in Virginia had a profound effect on me, but not in the way you might think. Sure, she spoke with phenomenal passion and authority about the chimpanzees of Gombe, but I had already learned by then to see reflected in the eyes of apes their intelligence and emotional depth.

But Goodall sees, and acts, beyond apes. It matters to rescue turtles on the highway (now I exit my car and accelerate the progress of middle-of-the-road plodders toward roadside safety) and spiders lurking in dusty corners of the house (instead of squashing them we escort them outdoors in a special transport glass nicknamed "Bug Rescue").

Thanks to Goodall, I can no longer think of generic turtles or generic spiders; I see individuals. In our yard, I welcome back the turtle I first noticed three springs ago, the yellow-and-black one with the notch in its shell; as I make the bed, I wonder about the tiny brown spider’s chances for competitive hunting now that a black-and-white-striped mega-rival has set up shop just across the room. (As I was completing this essay, my daughter Sarah interrupted to ask me to meet a “very miniscule bug with black and tan zigzag stripes” which has shared her room for 3 days and about which she has begun an observation journal.)

True confession: Despite all this, I still couldn’t get into birds. There are just so many of them, I couldn’t ever tell one from another, and looking into their eyes, well, I couldn’t see much looking back. And then along came Bernd Heinrich, in the form of The Geese of Beaver Bog. My friend Joanne, in town from California, said she just had to interrupt her own reading and leave her copy for me.

Given that Geese was a present from someone whose opinion I respected, I approached it with grim determination. Geese, of all things! Google "geese" and I promise you’ll link up with "vermin" early on. In huge swathes of the US, platoons of geese festoon lawns and golf courses, to the outrage of many. How-to manuals on geese are all about management, not appreciation.

But then I met Peep. And the gander Pop she bonded with, and Peep’s rival Jane, who ended up with Pop for a while, in a case of avian mate-switching. (Who says bonobos have the corner on sex intrigue in the nonhuman world!) And the other Canadian geese that frequented a pond -- and beaver bog -- adjacent to Heinrich’s home in Vermont over a several year period.

A naturalist, Heinrich has written numerous books about wildlife, including bumblebees and ravens in books like The Thermal Warriors: Strategies of Insect Survival and Mind of the Raven: Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds. I don’t know (yet) about these other books, but the riveting thing about Geese is its blend of keen scientific observation and free-flowing emotion. Heinrich not only reveals the beauty in these geese and their behaviors, he expresses his feelings for them, and for none more than Peep.

When Heinrich’s son was a toddler, the family adopted two goslings from a neighbor’s farm. Evolved to imprint on any surrogate mother likely to keep them safe from predators, these geeselets were a handful: “Unless you cater to them constantly, they give you not one second of peace.” Only one survived, a female with a scar over one eye: Peep. After a season of bonding with the Heinrich family, Peep went wild.

Two years later, Heinrich was surprised when a pair of geese descended onto his lawn. The gander was tense; the female looked right at home. Hopefully suspicious, Heinrich called Peep’s name. “She stopped, lifted her head, and looked for a second or two, then casually turned and in a slow and graceful gait she walked toward me.” Peep and Pop settled in the nearby pond, and thus began Heinrich’s immersion in Geeseworld.

Heinrich logs many hours observing the geese, visiting at regular intervals and even rushing to the pond at dawn if he hears unusual geesely clamor. This dedication underwrites his insights: “[W]ithout the attainment of familiarity, the significant remains invisible,” as he puts it. Gradually, Heinrich realizes how attached he feels. “I’m affected,” he writes. “I’ve been seduced by the geese.”

Heinrich’s approach is to focus “on individual geese -- each possessing a unique history and a particular set of relationships with other individual geese.” The individuals coordinate their actions via surprisingly intricate communication. Here’s Pop trying to get Peep to fly away from Heinrich: “[H]e started to honk, apparently to get her attention. Then he started rapidly nodding his head up and down while pointing in the direction of the pond. Even I could read his body language. It said: ‘I want to go!’ She assented by responding with a few brief head-nods of her own and then she launched into flight. An instant later, he too, took off, first behind and then beside her...” Importantly, this wasn’t an isolated instance, but a true behavioral pattern, for Pop “always gained assent from her before the decision to leave was finalized, and the final decision was always hers.”

Reading this passage, I began to share my friend Joanne’s excitement; when studying gorilla gestures, she and I closely analyze videotapes of head nods, arm extensions and body postures in ape families. But the heart of Geese is about parenting, even more so by the pair Jane and Pop than by Peep, and here too I recognized familiar patterns, ranging from parental incompetence of novices to fierce protection by those more experienced.

Heinrich never sentimentalizes the geese nor pretends they are feathery, flying analogues to terrestrial bipeds or their close relatives. I did wonder how Heinrich justified his multiple close-range interventions. At times his actions made me wince, as when he approached a nest in his kayak and “gently prodded Jane” with a paddle “to induce her to stand up” so he could glimpse new hatchlings.

Yet because of this interspecies communion, I see birds differently. It’s May now, which is nesting/hatching season for Canadian geese. If you inhabit the geese zone, you may soon encounter goslings in the neighborhood or just hear overhead that in-flight honking that always makes me so restless. Maybe one of Peep’s lineage will wing past. When chimpanzee mother Flo, so lovingly observed and described by Goodall, died in 1972, the London Times published an obituary for her. Peep won’t make it into the pages of a major newspaper, but this reader will remember her.

Note: Barbara J. King’s latest book is The Dynamic Dance: Nonvocal Communication in African Great Apes (Harvard University Press, 2004)