From the northwest, the formation is dropping out of the sapphire sky. They are almost overhead, seeking the refuge of the placid lake behind me.
I close my eyes. The silence yields as air rushes over wings. The winter sky sighs. A moment later, I hear the slap of big webbed feet on the surface and the rush of parting waters as the geese skid to a stop.
The Canada geese (Branta canadensis) have been rolling in on small waves of 10-15 birds. More than 100 now rest on the ebony waters. The ripples slide across the surface, leaving behind a mirror that doubles the number of geese, along with rafts of winter ducks and isolated grebes.
Even the most confirmed urbanite knows the ubiquitous Canada goose. The big bird with the black head and long neck sports a white chin strap. The wing span can reach 5 feet. A single bird can weigh nearly 10 pounds. The chest is pale, but the body and wings are brown. A white rump sets off a black tail with a broad white stripe. The Canada goose's honk is one bird call everyone knows.
It seems impossible today, but less than a century ago these geese were in trouble. The draining of wetlands, unregulated hunting and the killer droughts of the 1930s decimated the big birds. One subspecies was thought to be extinct.
In an effort to revive the species, some U.S. wildlife managers clipped the flight feathers of a few birds to establish resident populations on reservoirs and parks. The geese quickly established breeding populations.
The practice was widely replicated across the country, from major lakes to suburban ponds and even the water hazards on golf courses. A life of abundant food and easy living has sent resident geese populations skyrocketing.
In the East, non-migratory Canada geese are approaching 1 million birds. The number in the Mississippi basin is even higher. Western populations are also booming.
The recovery of migratory geese, on the other hand, has been uneven. Everywhere their numbers are dwarfed by resident flocks, which have become a nuisance in some locales. Today, wildlife managers are faced with a quandary: How do they encourage the continued revival of migratory Canada geese without making the population explosion of resident birds worse?
For centuries, humans have been awed by the migration of birds. How do these creatures find their way across vast expanses on their annual treks, often arriving at breeding locations or favorite feeding spots with clockwork precision? Modern biologists recognize that birds migrate by a combination of celestial and electromagnetic navigation skills. But Canada geese also prove that at least some birds learn these ancient routes from their parents. Birds born in a suburban office park never learn the location of ancestral breeding grounds.
Migratory Canada geese are born in the Arctic to parents that have mated for life. Their mothers incubate 4-10 eggs in the single annual brood. Goslings hatch after four weeks. Within a day, the babies leave the nest to start grazing on Arctic sedges and grasses. In six to seven weeks, the young birds fledge.
Their parents bond with the young through physical contact and soft vocalizations. Ornithologists report that young geese have been heard returning calls from within eggs prior to breaking out of their shells at birth.
Families stick together when winter weather finally forces the birds to go south. Unlike many species, Canada geese migrate in mixed flocks of juveniles and adult birds. They fly at altitudes that can exceed 1,000 feet, with some flying as high as a mile above the Earth.
The youngsters are learning the way to winter feeding grounds, which range from the Chesapeake across the width of North America south to Mexico.
The powerful wings that I just heard slicing through the still winter sky have carried these Canada geese from the Arctic. The birds will rest here. Nearby farm fields and lawns supply them with the grains and grasses that constitute the bulk of their vegetarian diet.
Some may stay here for the winter. Others may continue south. But all of the migratory birds will join their families for the trip north in the spring. With that migration, the education of the young geese will be complete.
In the whistle of wings, I hear a different yet equally timeless lesson. Seven years ago this week, my beloved brother, Patrick, passed away. Then, as now, I came to the shores of this little lake on a clear, cold morning to watch the waterfowl on the waters. Today, I repeat the ritual, watching, listening and remembering.
Basic truths risk being lost in my too comfortable existence. Here at the lake, the natural order is clearer. Family bonds run deep; memories linger; a new generation carries on.