In one of my favourite episodes from The Big Bang Theory, Penny, the waitress from across the hall, asks Sheldon if he could teach her “a little physics” so she can impress her scientist boyfriend. Sceptical, Sheldon asks her what science courses she took in high school.
“Well,” she replies enthusiastically, “I took the one with the frogs.”
A highlight of any biology course anywhere on Earth was the opportunity to tack a recently-deceased amphibian to a glass plate, and dissect it. Several species of frogs were probably obliterated in the process. Which, of course, is exactly why yours truly never took “the one with the frogs.” Physics, chemistry or math courses rarely involved the flow of blood.
Not having a high school biology credit unfortunately reduced my career options. So I explored the “liberal arts,” bouncing from pre-law to teaching and eventually settling on a mix of writer/entertainer/gad-about. But many’s the time over the decades when I wish I’d become an ornithologist (a bird scientist) instead.
The most recent time I longed to get inside a bird brain was a couple of weeks back when my wife and I were strolling down by the Pickering waterfront. One trail there goes along a spit of land with Lake Ontario on one side, and Frenchman’s Bay on the other. The birds have their favourite bodies of water, with ducks and gulls usually populating the noisier lake side, and a fairly sizeable population of swans in the calmer bay.
On this day, however, we were astonished to see a huge gaggle of Canada geese in the lake, perhaps two or three thousand of them, extending for almost a kilometre down the shore. In their anserine manner (from anser, the Latin word for goose), they were being extremely chatty. When we went onto the beach to get closer, they clammed up a bit, no doubt wondering if we were going to throw stones at them or something. But they all stayed, busily paddling about. It was by far the most geese we had ever seen in one place.
Eventually, we crossed over to the bay side to watch the swans for a while. Our attention was diverted for maybe ten minutes, before we came back to the geese. And they were gone. Every single one of them. Not a trace, and no idea where they went. When a flock of geese take to the air, it usually happens with a great flapping of wings and loud discussion about the flight plan. But in this case, many hundreds of geese just rose silently into the sky and disappeared. Why? How? We were gobsmacked.
Did some King or Queen goose, whose voice they all somehow recognized as being the boss, rise above the cacophony and say, “Hey guys and gals, let’s blow this pop stand before the Boyces get back. Meet you at Farmer St. John’s south forty in 20 minutes. Go!” And without worrying about the vee formation, they just took off.
I recently asked the Cosmos’ Nature Nut, Nancy Melcher, to tell me her favourite example of breathtaking design in nature. There are some spectacular candidates, like snowflakes or honeycombs or eyes, and Nancy had some especially nice things to say about spider webs, particularly when the dew is on them. But we both agreed that our favourite design is the simple, lovely vee of the Canada goose in flight.
If I had decided to pursue ornithology in university, I would have had a difficult time choosing the topic for my doctoral dissertation (and a doctorate is pretty much obligatory if you’re going to find a bird job). The language of ravens? I once had a delightful conversation with one on a dark Whitehorse street in the wee hours of the morning. How barred owls do that thing with their necks? How loons stay underwater so darn long?
Ultimately, I probably would have chosen something to do with avian sociology. Were you aware that when Canada geese fly for long periods in that vee formation, the bird at the head of the vee switches off fairly regularly? I’ve never seen them actually do it, but it makes sense. Being the lead bird must get pretty taxing, physically and mentally. But what intrigues me is how they draw up the schedule. Does every bird in the vee get a turn? Is there a pecking order, perhaps according to how many migrations you’ve done?
Another goose phenomenon that mystifies me is why they descend on a snow-covered field in the middle of winter. What’s the attraction? And why are there six geese in Bob’s field, and 600 in Betty’s field just one concession over? Who makes that decision? The same Queen who gave the signal in Pickering the other day?
All in all, despite the pungent poop, and setting aside the one who nearly took my head off when I got a little close to her nest on the Countryside Preserve one time, the branta canadensis is quite a beautiful and fascinating creature.
You know how they’re always encouraging seniors like me to go back and further their education? I wonder if it’s too late to take “the one with the frogs”…