The Geese of Beaver Bog by Bernd Heinrich

Though Bernd Heinrich writes a lot of popular science, he’s a real scientist and has the credentials, the classy positions and the publication record to prove it. He made professor at the University of California at Berkeley back in 1978, but abandoned the West for the University of Vermont, where he has a bit of land. On that land are a bunch of beaver ponds Heinrich calls Beaver Bog. He wanders around Beaver Bog looking at bees and birds, his specialty, while he dreams up new things to write about. In this case it is the Beaver Bog’s Canada geese that have grabbed his imagination.

Peep first caught his attention. A motherless child, Peep spent her first year learning how to be a human rather than a goose. Such animals, habituated to the point that they’ve no idea what they are, seldom make it in the wild so when Peep took off on her own, Heinrich figured that was the end of her. But, no, after two winters Peep shows up — and with a guy no less. How does Heinrich know this? Well, Peep had acquired a few unique scars while she was living on Heinrich’s front lawn not to mention that if you have a good eye and bother to study them, Canada geese facemasks are individually unique.

So Peep and her gander — Heinrich calls him Pop — nest and start trying to make a family. There follows contested territories, defensive battles, distraction displays, indulgent bathing, nervous displacement activity, anti-predator behavior, raids and counter raids and all kinds of other exciting social flux. While he’s explaining this, Heinrich introduces all sorts of plants and even more animals that reside in the bog. There are red-winged blackbirds, rose-breasted grosbeaks, goldfinches, woodcocks, insects dimpling the pond, and beavers and muskrats running all over the place. There is even a tug-of-war between a weasel and the author over a dead mouse’s body.

Peep and Pop fail in their attempt at reproduction. This is no surprise. Peep was making the attempt a year early by goose reproduction standards so her chances were slim at best. Too, Heinrich speculates that Peep’s human imprint had resulted in a relatively weak bond with the gander, Pop.

So Canada geese mate for life, right? Well maybe not. The next year, Pop shows up a week ahead of Peep and he’s wrapped in the wings of a new lady, Jane, the mate of one of the Beaver Bog’s resident pair. When Peep shows up, well, divorce is never easy. There are bad moments. Peep pouts. Jane throws hysterical fits. One starts wondering about Pop’s drinking habits. But Jane’s ex saves the day by sweeping Peep off her little webbed feet, and they head west into the sunset.

Can this be typical behavior? It’s hard to say. Heinrich isn’t doing science on the Bog and he’s the first to admit it. Consequently, care has to be taken in the kind of generalizations that are made, particularly since Heinrich is admittedly tightly bound to the animals he’s observing. He cares. He ain’t objective and that’s not good science. But Heinrich defends himself: “The problem of compromised objectivity comes less from being enamored by a beautiful animal, than by being too infatuated with a beautiful theory.” That’s a distinction more scholars should make and should pass onto their students.

Still, Heinrich’s insistence on bothering the geese is awfully irritating. He’s all the time fiddling with the eggs, feeling them, floating them in the water, shaking them. He seems to have an obsession with demonstrating how much the geese trust him even though any wild goose that learns to trust a human is probably dead meat. Possibly all this interference is permissible for a trained and respected biologist on his private pond, but it still bothered me. Peep and Pop might have been unsuccessful for a lots reasons, but they might have been successful if the scientist could have kept his hands off the goose, not to mention the goose eggs.

And don’t get any ideas about trying to emulate Heinrich’s cunning stunts at home. A disturbed goose can be a hell of honking, hissing, spitting fury quite capable of giving a human a well-deserved thrashing. I once watched an Egyptian gander win a stand-off with a pair of hungry hyenas who decided it was a lot safer to steal food from the lion’s jowls than to cross a gander to get at the goslings.

As Heinrich studies his bog, however, a real mystery manifests itself. Other geese on the pond with new hatchlings disappear without a trace within days of the hatching. Where to? Why? What’s this all about? Well, I’m not about to tell you the answer and spoil the story, but let me tell you what: When the answer becomes apparent, it is absolutely mind-boggling.

This and the rest of the story of Heinrich’s Canada geese on Beaver Bog should discredit any thoughts about geese being the thickheaded critters that Heinrich holds is their popular image. Anyone who has lived around or hunted these magnificent animals will surely agree with Heinrich: Geese are anything but stupid. All their behavior has reason. We just have a hard time seeing the world through the eyes of a Canada goose.

And herein lies the importance of this beautiful little book. At one point, Heinrich pays homage to Peep: “Her gift to me was the unexpected link that now connected me to her species and her world.” Heinrich’s gift is to pass on something of Peep’s mysterious, beautiful world to us. It’s a breathtaking vision and a story told by a consummate scientist who is also a consummate writer. He backs himself up with beautiful illustrations and a fine bibliography.

This book is a must for anyone with a love for things natural whether one is an experienced naturalist or simply an average Joe who thinks that loving natural things might be good idea. It would make excellent supplemental reader for high school or college introductory biology courses. But, teachers, caution your students that it’s one thing to try to see the world through the eyes of a goose and something entirely different to go feeling the eggs under a nesting goose!