What can baby geese expect from life on the river?

By From page A11 | May 05, 2013

Two weeks ago a friend told me that her mother, now deceased, used to say that life is sorrow. You find happiness when you can, but overall, life is suffering, life is sorrow.

I disagreed immediately. The cup may be half-filled with sludge but the other half contains milk and honey, and I think the second “half” is larger. I have no rational reason. It’s just what I feel.

This brings me to the story of the geese.

Last Sunday as I was paddling with two friends down the quiet part of the river, I spotted my first baby Canada geese of the season. Yellow-headed and precious, they were pingponging downriver close to their parents.

My feelings are never mixed at such moments. My heart jumps with excitement; my total focus turns towards the birds.

“They look newly hatched,” I said to the friend who was closest to me.

She immediately set about counting them, which was difficult because the parents maintained distance and the babies kept changing places. I tried to stealth-paddle towards them, avoiding all splashes and sound. But with their feet hidden by water, the geese stealth-paddled away from me.

“Nine!” said my friend. “A big family.”

I got caught up in confirming the count. Yes, nine. So tiny they could practically fit back into their eggs.

As the family hastened towards reeds on the far bank, I spotted a second set of adult geese, not surrounded by babies. They looked directly at the interlopers, and I knew what mother goose was thinking and what father goose was thinking.

Mom: “I wish my babies would arrive.”

Dad: “We’ll have ten.”

As many people know, there are too many Canada geese in our area. Their overpopulation creates problems for farmers and diminishes opportunities for other species. For those of us who live close to them, the goose problem is more pedestrian: Watch where you step. Rattlesnakes are a remote possibility; goose poop is everywhere.

After our river trip, my friends and I went back to our cabin where I immediately noticed a third pair of geese, probably the ones who have been nesting nearby. They were paddling in an eddy with babies slightly larger than the ones I saw in the morning.

But why were there only three?

My friends and I discussed this. Who are the predators? Water snakes? Hawks? Raccoons? I’m not sure which animals are fast enough, sharp-eyed enough and hungry enough to capture and devour baby geese, but I know they’re out there, and every year I watch clutches of baby geese grow smaller week by week, until June when the baby mergansers are born, and it starts all over again with a new species.

Add to this the hummingbirds that die against my window, the deer and skunks mowed down by cars, the tadpoles born in puddles that dry up before they become frogs and the baby oaks that perish for lack of rain, and you have a picture of nature as I know it. People do some of the killing, but far from all.

In similar ways, life is hard for humans, especially in lands I visited recently. Poverty, malnutrition and lack of medicine take people at early ages. War and, in the case of Cambodia, genocide, take even more. From an international perspective, I think of the United States as the lucky land with a glass three-quarters full. In Cambodia, where most people lost relatives in the genocide, you need to be quite the optimist to see the glass even half full.

If I’m bouncing between issues large and small, it’s because I’m trying to figure out what proportion of joy versus sorrow exists overall. Is it the same on the world stage as in my own home?

Half the time I think a tick has lodged in me, it turns out to be only a mosquito bite.

Half the time I think I’m ill, it passes.

I feel a shadow of worry every time a family member gets on a plane, but nothing bad has happened.

It could. The Boston Marathon happened. The Connecticut school shootings happened. A mother goose can and does lose six goslings.

Some days it feels as if I’m in a period of hawks and predators and lost ducklings; other days I’m listening to the melodies of frogs in love, or watching teenage geese fend off the bad guys. One day I rejoice that my old home (Rhode Island) has approved gay marriage. The next day I hear about chemical weapons in Syria. The day after that a young friend is diagnosed with cancer.

We get it all, joy and suffering — in different times and in different proportions — but we get it all. No good reason exists for me to argue that there’s more joy than sorrow, except maybe the way my heart jumps when I see those baby birds.

— Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at [email protected]

Marion Franck

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