Myth or reality? Canada geese are just dumb birds, acting totally on instinct.
Fact or fiction? A Canada goose, or any wild bird, cannot establish a relationship with a human being.
True or false? All Canada geese mate for life.
If you read Bernd Heinrich’s new nonfiction title, The Geese of Beaver Bog, about the Canada geese – and other birds – near his rural home in Vermont, you will discover all the answers to these puzzling and provocative questions. This is emeritus professor of biology at University of Vermont Heinrich’s ninth nonfiction title, and like his other works, it is accessible, not academic in tone. Heinrich loves creatures, especially birds, does not feel superior to them and is delighted when he discovers new behaviors or motivations.
Charming line drawings and photographs by the author accompany the text, disproving the adage, “You’ve seen one goose, you’ve seen them all.”
Heinrich has always been fascinated with birds, previously writing about owls and ravens, in particular. He is wont to climb trees to peer into nests, to take college students hiking into wildlife habitat in the winter months in Maine, and to wake before dawn to catch some exciting avian activity. He lives with his wife and children in northwestern Vermont, and although no longer actively teaching or doing “academic” research, he can’t help himself from exploring the behaviors of the creatures that are his natural neighbors.
Like most of us in Vermont – and in many U.S. locations – Heinrich has always felt a thrill to hear the calls of the Canada geese as they fly overhead in formation two times a year. In northern Vermont, we are lucky to live close to the Dead Creek goose preserve, in Panton, a flyway where thousands of Canada and snow geese congregate in the fall months before flying south for the winter.
Writes Heinrich, “There is something in the ceaseless chatter of migrating geese that stirs me. Perhaps it touches something wild, remote, and mysterious that I share with them… For many years the geese seemed physically remote to me. That changed dramatically after my family and I got to know an individual Canada goose. We called her Peep.” Although Peep became quite “close and personal” to the author’s family, “she always retained a connection to the wild.” Throughout this charming book, Peep makes many return trips to visit her surrogate family, sometimes at totally unexpected times.
One of the most wonderful, and rewarding, aspects of Heinrich’s writing is that he, along with two of my heroes, Jane Goodall and Konrad Lorenz, is not a “hard scientist.” Rather, Heinrich, who holds a Ph.D. in biology and has taught hundreds of students in his discipline, calls himself an ethologist. He reflects, “Scientists who studied behavior in the field were until recently considered to be doing ‘soft’ science. It took some time before the scientific community acknowledged that an animal is not really whole until it is within its natural environment, and that, in turn, observations made under laboratory conditions necessarily miss some very crucial factors. This realization spawned a discipline called ethology.” Although ethologists still look for “rules” that apply universally to all members of a certain species, “so-called biological rules are the sum of individual cases, and an observer of individual cases can be treated to surprising, anomalous observations that may become a beacon to discovery.”
This is what The Geese of Beaver Bog consists of: “ surprising, anomalous observations” of several individuals that fill the author – and the reader – with wonder and with new respect for this bird.
Heinrich writes in a friendly way, using only a few unknown biological terms. He certainly knows his business, but he also knows his audience and explains difficult terminology without condescending. He does not anthropomorphize but explains the birds’ behaviors carefully and fully. Indeed, he has been compared to Henry David Thoreau on more than one occasion. Like all dedicated scientists and many bird watchers, Heinrich is incredibly patient and diligent. The ending of the book is nothing short of miraculous in terms of interspecies connection.
The Geese of Beaver Bog is a delightful title and will certainly alter the way the reader views Canada geese flying in formation across the sky. For vintage Heinrich, I can easily recommend One Man’s Owl, The Trees in My Forest and Ravens in Winter.