Gregarious Geese

Mar 21, 2018


In the changing seasons of the prairies, there are certain developments that capture our attention for their continentality. They are sprawling events that progress up the latitudinal length of the Great Plains.


Digital communications make it possible for us to follow the progression of the small grain harvest from Texas to Alberta, beginning in May when the custom harvesters get to work in north Texas. There are the official harvest labor and grain elevator reports, and there are the many bloggers and posters from the ranks of the harvesters themselves.

Waterfowl migrations are another north-south link on the Great Plains. Birders eagerly await the massing of elegant sandhill cranes in the Platte River Valley. Those who view waterfowl not only with binoculars but also over a gun barrel attend to the movements of snow geese. Websites and apps keep them current as to goose movements across the prairies.

Such attention by hunters to snow geese in spring dates from 1999, when the US Fish & Wildlife Service issues a conservation order permitting spring hunting. The service at that time estimated the number of snow geese at 15 to 25 million, way up from a little over a million a quarter-century earlier.

There followed liberalized regulations for shooting snow geese, allowing hunters to do things not permitted in fall hunting seasons--play recorded calls over sound systems, use unplugged magazines, and shoot bodacious numbers of birds. A whole new industry of game guiding arose, following the geese north. This twenty-first century boom in snow goose hunting leads me to say two things.

First, from the point of view of policy and life on the plains, we need to be careful about our habits of thought. Wildlife managers and waterfowl scientists fell into certain habits of thinking about waterfowl on the plains, habits which we might call, from an analytic point of view, declensionist. By which I mean, they assumed that human effects necessarily wrought decline and, unless something was done to stop it, destruction of wildlife.

The history of waterfowl management commonly told is one of struggle of good guys against bad guys--greedy market hunters first, and after that, profit-maximizing farmers. Plus there was that Dust Bowl thing and the wetland crisis of the 1930s. So, backed up by federal legislation, waterfowl managers fought heroically to stabilize habitat while regulating harvest.

What they didn’t reckon on was developments off their screen--how snow geese, adapting nicely to agricultural change on the prairies, and benefiting from conservation efforts, would produce a population explosion. And eat up their arctic nesting grounds.

The second thing I want to say about these geese is that in the rush to lock and load, we ought not to forget the aesthetic pleasure and the natural fascination manifest in the swirling flocks of snowy birds. The greatest of Great Plains naturalists, Paul A. Johnsgard, in his 1978 classic, Ducks, Geese, and Swans of the World, writes that of all the waterfowl, “snow geese are perhaps the most gregarious of all.” Hence the unfathomable flocks of glittering birds milling above our fields and marshes every year. They are the more fascinating when we realize that a massive flock is composed of family groups, each acting as a unit, but together, in a wonderfully complex dance, composing the flock.

Somewhere in the action of that flock I see a metaphor, but I’m not sure what to do with it. ~Tom Isern