On Saturday, we went to SLO to look for migrating Canada geese who had stopped over. We knew to look for migrants because they had passed over us, and we wanted to go bask in their honking, tranquil, rejuvenating presence.
We found them where we expected to (birders + the Internet = easy to find birds). Having piled out of our car at Laguna Lake to stand among what surely must have been the world's loudest few Mallards and a passel of coots, whose green rail feet look absurdly Big Bird reminiscent despite their tiny size, we were surrounded by the beloved "ah-onk!" that we had gone to hear.
We were just standing and loving them (and being a little anxious because people should not allow their hellspawn to throw rocks at wildlife... it's a short road to hellspawn once the rocks come out) when a sweet middle-aged nut came trundling over with his bag of bread. "Buzzard-ducks," he called, sweetly. "Here, buzzard-ducks!"
I have a way with the insane (endearingly and not). I grinned and asked, "the Muscovies?"
"I call them buzzard-ducks," he explained, unnecessarily.
"Because of the fleshy patches on their faces?" I asked, equally unnecessary. To have seen a Muscovy is to understand the name "buzzard-duck."
"Yep. They'll usually come right over. They're not hungry; my wife just fed them a whole loaf of bread."
We smiled and chatted about having come to see the geese. He told us about his favorites, the Chinese geese. He had names for them: Napoleon, his favorite; Gimpy-Goose, the white goose who had taken over the role of pariah; the Crossnecks, who sound the alarm and cross their necks when they see him.
Yep, he was one of us.
He recommended we walk down the shore of the lake and look for Napoleon, a brown Chinese goose. We did so, partially to give him more personal space in which to baby talk the "buzzard-ducks."
We admired geese and ducks. We picked wild anise and crushed it to enjoy its licorice scent. We speculated on which goose might be Napoleon.
It didn't take long. Our friend caught up with us, calling, "Nap-oooooooo-leon!" The Chinese geese on the opposite shore took up a talkative fuss, somewhere between the creaking of a swing set and a science-fictional dinosaur howl. They wanted bread, maybe, but they were trying to talk our friend into bringing it over to them.
"Nap-ooooooooo-leon," he called. Then he explained again what he had told me before. "You see, he comes over even if he isn't hungry. He just comes over to hang out and be together. Every once in a while he starts showing me nest sites; breaks my heart. I mean, the first time, I thought, oh no, uh oh, I can't deal with this."
And Napoleon launched himself on the water, as majestic as a swan, if a swan loosed plaintively monstery cries every few moments. "Aeeeeenk!"
Our friend, just as joyously and enthusiastically, with just as little self-consciousness, responded "yeah!"
When Napoleon had finally put to shore and wandered diffidently down the coast, trailed by opportunistic Canadas (and one cackling minima ssp.), our friend sat on a stump and offered bread. Napoleon came up, creaking softly and elevating his bill skyward, stretching out his long neck. He would lay his face right up near the face of the human, like (I imagine) the Crossnecks would, like I've seen hundreds of geese do to one another.
"Who's my good goosey?" our new friend crooned in a hushed, but still exuberant, approximation of the dinosaur-inspiring goose voice. "Napoleon! You're my good goosey! Yeah!"
It was plainly evident on both the human and the goosey faces that they had found one another and loved one another. The goose wasn't hungry; he nibbled to please his host, but he was there just to emanate love and be close to another soul who adored him unconditionally. The man petted him with barely-touching, kindly strokes of the back of his hand, and Napoleon reveled in the attention, craning his long lovely neck and singing soft "talking" notes. "I think I must remind him of his former owner," the man confided softly to us.
"He loves you," I answered, awed.
"I love him. I would take him home, if I had a pond," he said.
Who could be so heartless as to abandon an imprinted goose? They imprint for life. They mate for life. They are silly and a pain in the ass sometimes, to be sure, but geese have a deep-rooted goodness that astonishes the trenchant observer.
"Haaeeeenk?" Napoleon asked blissfully, softly.
"Yeah!" the man responded, his plain, everyday, middle-aged face radiant. "Napoleon. My good goosey."
Sure, the man is a half-crazy crank with a healthy dose of irreverent animism (and no less am I), but that bird thinks that he hung the moon. I have rarely shared a moment so intimate, so breathtakingly beautiful, and so sweet-- let alone with a stranger.
Thank you, Napoleon. Thank you, mister. (I should have asked your name.)
I've only enjoyed that trust from two wild geese.
One was a fatally injured gosling we "rescued" (there was little we could do but make him comfortable), who was ready to accept kind touch and comfort from any creature. He rewarded us with the same accepting and serene gaze and intimate being-together. We called him Galahad Goose because he was brave and pure, and mourned him sincerely.
The other was Crookey, the crooked-necked goose who visited the little park in Pullman, Washington, where we hung out a lot doing outdoor things. Crookey didn't mind when we showed up empty handed; the grass from our fingers tasted better to him than the grass growing under his bill. He didn't even mind when we petted him, barely brushing his silky feathers, with the backs of our fingers. He came up practically into our laps and hung out with the humans, all trusting eyes and winsome expression.
I worry that we are betraying the wild ducks we feed by currying trust in them, that will be abused by the hellspawn, sporthunters, and douchebags of the world. I don't think I have an option; they tag along with Sir Maxalot and Duckira when we feed them, and those two tame rescuee heavy ducks NEED our care. I also worry about geese like Crookey, who migrated with his flock, when they are so loving and trusting of humans. They are brilliant ambassadors for birdkind, but they endanger their lovely, graceful necks thereby. Napoleon is a park-dwelling non-migrant; he will be partially safe. Galahad was past risk, and all of us knew it.
What a world, where we have to worry about allowing something to trust us.
Is kindness abuse? Oh me, oh my.
Anyway, I hate to bring up a bitter note, but birds are the only animals not protected by the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act (HMSA) -- the only federal law designed to protect animals at slaughter. Butterball is the latest horror house in the scandal that you have surely heard directed at KFC or others. 'Tis the season for me to fret about these things; if you would like to do something small but pro-active, please think about taking action to get birds included in the (poorly enforced, crappy, but better than nothing) HMSA.