Off They Go!

IT WAS nearly dusk, and there was a chill in the autumn air. But the calm silence was soon interrupted by the clamorous honking of a flock of geese. Suddenly, they appeared overhead​—about 20 of them forming a giant V as they started to fly with elegant, powerful wing strokes. One goose gracefully banked to its left and moved to the back of the group. The awesome sight sparked my curiosity. Why do geese fly in formation? And where are they going?

The goose is a waterbird, closely related to the duck and the swan. There are some 40 species of geese worldwide, and they are most commonly seen in Asia, Europe, and North America. The Canada goose is one of the best-known species, with its characteristic long dark neck and white patch about its throat. Mature males of the subspecies called giant Canada geese can weigh up to 20 pounds [8 kg] and have a wing span of 6.5 feet [2 m]. This goose spends its summer as far north as Alaska and northern Canada and then migrates as far south as Mexico for the winter months.

The timing of migration is critical for geese. If they arrive north too soon, the water will still be frozen and vegetation will be scarce. Hence, Canada geese tend to advance north at the same rate as the season’s advance. When  they arrive at their destination, the geese divide up into pairs, and each pair then establishes its own breeding ground.

Flying in formation allows geese to keep one another in view and to respond quickly when the bird in front changes direction, speed, or altitude. In addition, some experts believe that the air current created by the geese up front makes flight easier for the rest of the flock, reducing air turbulence. In any event, it seems that a migrating flock usually consists of a number of families, with adults taking turns leading.

Often, Canada geese use the same nest site year after year. The nest is usually made of simple materials, such as sticks, grass, and moss. Geese are monogamous​—that is, they have one mate for life. If one of the pair dies, the surviving goose might accept another mate. Usually, though, it remains alone.

The female lays between four and eight eggs, which she incubates for about 28 days. The parents are formidable protectors. When they or their young are threatened, the pair become quite aggressive. With their wings they can deliver powerful blows against predators.

Goslings begin communicating while still in the egg. Their calls range from high-pitched trills (signaling contentment) to distress calls. When communicating with their young and with each other, adults too use a variety of calls. In fact, researchers have isolated at least 13 distinct calls among Canada geese.

Geese truly give evidence of being “instinctively wise.” (Proverbs 30:24) Of course, all credit for this goes to Jehovah God, the one who made all things​—including the winged creatures of the heavens.​—Psalm 104:24.

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Did you know?

● As soon as they are hatched, goslings leave the nest for good with their dad and mom. Families usually remain together.

● Bar-headed geese are said to migrate over Mount Everest, which has an altitude of nearly 30,000 feet [8,900 m].

● Some types of geese can fly as much as a thousand miles [1,600 km] without resting.

● When flying at speeds similar to geese flying solo, geese flying in formation beat their wings less frequently and hence have lower heart rates.

[Credit Line]

Top left: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Washington, D.C./Duane C. Anderson

[Picture Credit Line on page 16]

Flying geese: © Tom Brakefield/CORBIS