Eagle Lake residents, geese have come to an understanding

Published 2:00 am Sunday, February 26, 2012

I was living at Eagle Lake 20-something years ago when the Canada geese were brought in and released. Many of us thought it would be neat to have a species of waterfowl reintroduced to the area where their ancestors used to spend the winter. Before long though, residents and weekenders alike were bemoaning the government goose gift. You see, it became a matter of whose pier or boat ramp got chosen by the geese for that week’s latrine!

My goose gripe came when the flock picked my mini-orchard of fruit trees for their open air outhouse. I didn’t mind the birds helping themselves to what fruit they could reach. But I did resent putting on rubber boots to go pick my own peaches.

To make things worse, the geese did not migrate north come spring. A couple of the numerous subspecies of Canada geese tend to get happy where they are and stay put year-round. But the majority of all bird species do seasonally migrate, be it a few hundred miles or thousands. The record holder is easily the Arctic tern, which flies from the Arctic to the Antarctic and back every year. That is essentially from the North Pole to the South Pole, 20,000 miles one way.

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The reasons birds migrate are several, with food likely the biggest reason. Ancestral breeding grounds, raising their young in comfortable weather and responding to changing day length also cause birds to head south, then north toward “home.”

The “how” of birds navigating long distances is fascinating. It is generally agreed among bird scientists that sight plays a big part in migration. Migrating birds look for familiar landmarks en route. Also, some daytime fliers use the sun as a directional guide and nighttime migrational birds know how to read the stars.

A few land species, especially the raptors, refuse to fly over open waters. With the Central America peninsula only 25 miles wide at one spot, 100,000 migrating eagles, hawks, falcons and owls might pass by in a day as they crowd up to avoid the oceans. On the other hand, hummingbirds make a 600-mile flight across the Gulf of Mexico in a 12-hour, nonstop flight. And do it again a half a year later.

There seems to be disagreement among ornithologists regarding any built-in compass in migrating birds. The compass theory is that some bird species have small particles of metal iron oxide in their heads. As in the compasses we used before GPS, the metal indicates magnetic north. And, according to the bird magnet believers, birds know to compensate for magnetic north being off the mark of true north the further north or south they fly.

A report this week from an Eagle Lake friend was that the nonmigrating migratory geese and people are getting along better these days. There seems to be fewer geese and they keep a farther distance. Perhaps the special Canada goose hunting season and generous bag limit have them conscience of possibly having more bits of metal in the compass.

Terry Rector writes for the Warren County Soil and Water Conservation District, 601-636-7679 ext. 3.