July 28, 2008

Wild Goose Chase

Several weeks ago, my dad sent me an e-mail inviting me to join him for a day of goose banding with Utah Division of Wildlife employees.

What is goose banding? And, why would I want to do it?

Well, I can answer the first question. But the second will remain a mystery to all of us, especially my husband.

Each summer, between mid-June and late July, Canada geese shed and re-grow their outer wing feathers, also known as primaries. During this four- to five-week molting process, geese cannot fly. This flightless period presents the perfect opportunity for biologists to catch the geese and place a small metal band on one of their legs (see picture). The bands have unique numbers etched on them, which will help wildlife experts years from now learn about any geese that are caught, killed, or found dead. Basically, a biologist could trap one of these geese two years from now in Canada and by looking up the number on its band find out that it is a 3-year-old male born in Utah.

There are several methods used by the Division to catch geese during the molt, but I was invited for an especially exciting day, when the geese are chased down by airboats in shallow water (we’re talking two feet). The geese dive to get away, but by hanging off the edge of the airboat you can basically scoop the geese right out of the water.

It’s sort of like COPS, but with birds.

How could I pass that up? So, I took the day off work, got up early, and met my parents for a day at the marshes just outside of Corinne, Utah. When I got there, I discovered that I wasn’t the only son or daughter invited by a Division employee—but I was the only one over the age of 13. This bird stuff can be tough on the ego at times.

My embarrassment subsided a little, though, as soon as we took off from the shore. The day was absolutely gorgeous, and seeing the marsh from an airboat was spectacular. We flew by avocets, stilts, herons, and grebes in our search of the geese. Actually catching a goose took some practice, though. Hanging off the airboat, I consistently managed to touch the birds, but I lacked the nerve to get a really good grip on one. I was terrified of hurting one and nervous about falling off the boat. But after watching Seth, a 6th-grader, handle geese that were almost as big as him, I realized I needed to man up.

With a little practice, I soon was hauling 6-pound geese out of the water. I got smacked in the face several times by flapping wings, but the geese and I seemed to survive it all without any major injury. The only clip I could manage to post is a little long, but you can get the picture within the first minute or so. (Thanks to Timothy for figuring all of this stuff out for me.)

Once our boat’s crates were full of geese, we headed toward shore where the geese had a couple more indignities in store—sexing and banding.

Sexing is almost as dirty as it sounds. Basically, Division employees flip the geese over, hold them between their legs, and then turn their cloaca inside out. Now, surprisingly we haven’t gotten into the cloaca on Bird of the Week yet, considering how much we talk about bird sex. The cloaca is basically a multi-purpose organ, used to poop, have sex, and lay eggs. For birds like Canada geese, which do not differ in gender by color or size, you have to actually look at the small sex organs located within the cloaca to determine whether they are male or female. A few helpful Division employees tried to show me the difference between a goose clitoris and a goose penis, but to be honest with you, they all looked the same to me.

Once a goose’s age and sex were determined and a band was placed on its leg, it was released back into the marsh. I wasn’t surprised to see a few geese hang back to honk their disapproval at the lot of us. Don’t get me wrong, banding serves a real scientific purpose and can help determine all sorts of information that ultimately helps birds. But you put yourself in their situation for a minute, and you can’t help but feel a little sorry for them.

If it makes you or the geese feel any better, I suffered my own indignities on the trip:
First, there was the whole "30-year-old kid with a bunch of actual kids" thing to contend with.
Second, the video of me catching geese can only be described as extremely unflattering. Really, no woman should be filmed with her butt as the primary focus, unless she is paid adult-industry wages to do so. (Being willing to post this video proves that I love birds a lot).
Third, I quickly discovered why it was pretty much all men and a few pre-adolescent girls doing the capturing when I looked down to discover my thin t-shirt was completely soaked and sticking to every part of my body.
Finally, if that weren’t bad enough, I brought a second shirt to change into after banding, but realized too late that it didn’t really work with a still-wet bra. I attended a post-banding lunch with my new Division friends with a look that can only be described as "lactating."

And now, I will end this very long blog with a couple of quick facts about Canada geese:

Fact: The correct name is Canada goose, not Canadian goose. Not sure why this is the case, but you will be corrected by obnoxious editors and bird aficionados if you say or write it incorrectly.
Fact: Canada geese feed on a variety of plant material, including grass and grains, as well as the junk people throw out to them in city parks.
Fact: Canada geese have become an increasing nuisance in cities. Many of them have stopped migrating and make permanent homes in city parks and golf courses, where they leave behind a lot of waste. (Which you now know comes from their cloaca!)
Fact: Canada geese take on child-rearing in a sort of hippie, communal way. It is quite common for adults geese to gather up all of the hatched goslings into one big group and help each other raise the young.

This has been Your BOTW.

P.S. Thanks to all the people who patiently waited for me to get the hang of catching geese, showed me the art of "sexing", and tried to ignore my sole entry in the goose-banding wet t-shirt contest.


Rachel said...

Does anybody have a cigarette?

Anonymous said...

You do realize that you probably made the day of all these pre-pubescent boys by strutting around in your soaking wet t-shirt that was clinging seductively to every curve of your body! Can we call you Mrs. Robinson?
- Patrick

Amy H. (bird geek) said...

Let me speak for everyone involved that day, Patrick: "Seductive" was not the appropriate adjective; "horrifying" or "frightening" may be a bit closer.

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