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MARCH 2013 The Goose From Beyond The North Wind

As the Crow Flies By Doug Pifer

Maybe you’ve seen a few smaller white geese mixed in with a fl ock of wild Canada geese. It’s not unusual here- abouts, particularly in late winter or early spring. They’re snow geese, stopping to rest on their way to their arctic breed- ing grounds. For many years my parents lived on Chincoteague Island. Every year during October, mi- grating snow geese would come in. Enormous fl ocks blanketed the marshes with white. If dis- turbed, or for reasons of their own, an entire fl ock would take off at once with a deafening clamor.

In late winter of 2001, I stayed

on Chincoteague for a month looking after my dad during his fi nal illness. One afternoon I bicycled across the bridge to watch fl ock after fl ock of snow geese land in the salt marshes. Most of them probably spent their day feeding in farm fi elds on the mainland 20 miles away. As legions of white forms glided down on set wings, I heard the rush of air streaming through their feathers. A man who knew my dad stopped and stood near me, watching the geese. He said in a couple weeks they’d leave, heading who knows where. I answered, “Probably some-

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place on the tundra in northern Canada. “

“Must look like a chicken farm up ‘ere,” he said. His words were prophetic. During the past 10 years, snow goose populations have bur- geoned until they’ve begun to damage their habitat. They are now the most abundant water- fowl on the continent. Wildlife biologists estimate snow geese numbers have risen from a low point of three thousand in 1900 to an estimated 6 million in the 2011 nesting season. Their epic migration takes


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them from their arctic tundra nesting grounds to the Atlan- tic coast from Massachusetts to South Carolina, where over- wintering birds gather in fl ocks of thousands. In late winter, fu- eling up for their return fl ight, they favor sprouting wheat, rye and other grain crops in fi elds where they feed up to 12 hours a day. This habit has led them to congregate in farmland ar- eas from southwest Pennsyl- vania and New Jersey south to

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Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and the Delmarva Peninsula. It also hasn’t endeared them to farmers. By mid March they are north- bound. Flying day and night, they generally follow the Ches- apeake Bay to the Susquehanna valley, continuing across Penn- sylvania to the Great Lakes. They seldom touch down this far inland unless they encoun- ter prolonged storms. Then strays can turn up throughout the month of March. My wife and I once saw four

such stragglers in a fi eld just outside White Post. They fl ew up and across the road ahead of us, smaller than the Canada geese they were hanging out with. Dazzling white, with black tipped wings and pink bills, they looked exotic. Before DNA testing, snow geese were known to science as Chen hyperborea. They’re now considered a color phase of the blue goose, Chen caerulescens. I prefer the old name, which means “Goose from beyond the north wind.”


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