A pond occupies the center of our neighborhood, and a goose and two ducks live there. They have become, well, friends. In most places, geese hang with geese and ducks with ducks, so our pond, with an inter-species friendship going on, is a little more interesting.
John, one of our neighbors, brought ducks to the pond. There were four, then three and now two. They can’t fly, and John feeds them specially formulated waterfowl food. At first he chased geese away, restricting his food to his ducks. Now that his ducks have taken in a goose, he feeds all three.
In retirement, I have the time to walk around the pond and keep some mental notes about what goes on.
Let’s call our goose, Alex, and the ducks, Drew and Devon.
About three or four years ago, Alex hatched at the pond in a family of geese. The pond supports one family every year, and they leave in late summer. Sometime in his youth Alex injured his wing, maybe when he was learning to fly. He is now permanently grounded, or ponded, and his right wing droops badly.
At our pond, geese learn to fly in late June, and at first, they fly away for a few hours and return; gradually they return less and less until by the end of summer, we hardly see any geese. When Alex’s family left for some hours, he stayed to himself, rejoining his family when it returned. By the end of that first summer after his family had migrated on, Alex was truly alone.
Meanwhile, Drew and Devon lived well together. .
Alex’s first fall and winter were lonely. Geese visited the pond infrequently, and when they did, Alex quickly joined them. When they flew away, he was again alone. At times Alex swam around and fed by himself, and at other times he swam and fed near the ducks. Drew and Devon lived independently of Alex: they fed where they wanted, took naps in the afternoon sun, went to John’s for grain, and visited different parts of the pond. Alex might tag along, keeping a distance, or he might not.
Gradually, and this took maybe a year, Alex spent more time with and lived closer to the ducks. He might swim or feed three or four feet from Drew or Devon when they were merely inches apart. Then it was one or two feet, and little by little the discernible separation vanished. They formed a unit. Now they swim, feed and nap together all the time.
Some readers might say they all benefit: geese are great sentinels, so the ducks gain a guard in exchange for their companionship.
Other geese ordinarily do not interfere with Alex, Drew and Devon. Life is peaceful unless adult geese are protecting their goslings or the groups compete for food, both of which happen when people go to the pond to feed bread to the birds.
If people show up with a sack, the geese hurry over to see if it’s food, and when we toss out the bread, the adults and their goslings eat. It’s a raucous and chaotic affair with goslings racing back and forth after the tossed bread.
A few years ago I was watching neighbors feed the goose family, and Drew and Devon swam over to join in. That was a mistake.
When Drew or Devon tried to get some bread, a goose would lower and extend its head, open its wings, flap and honk and hiss and run wildly after Drew or Devon, who would retreat without a fight. They tried repeatedly and got routed every time.
A couple of weeks ago, however, the tables turned. A flock of geese visited the pond, and a woman with her daughter brought bread to feed the birds. It was early March, and there were no goslings.
Surprisingly, at least to me, Drew and Devon were aggressively intolerant of the new geese. The woman threw out bread, the geese converged toward it, and Drew and Devon swam, quacked, and flapped their wings at the geese, chasing them back. With only two ducks and maybe ten or twelve geese, the ducks were overwhelmed. As the ducks chased three or four geese south, several more closed in from the north. The ducks would pivot and head north in renewed fury, then the southern geese would move on the food.
With food at stake, the ducks took the territory as theirs, and excepting Alex, they would brook no competition from the geese. Alex might be a goose, but he was their friend, or companion, or family member, or—what’s the right word?—and he was permitted to feed.
Alex did not challenge the visiting geese. He just ate the bread and behaved as if life was pretty good, even though there was a war going on around him.
We might moralize about these birds: praise the geese for so vigorously protecting their young, or scold the ducks—we might dub them the one-percenters—for being so selfish with their abundance (after all, John feeds them all they really need). We might comment on the problems caused by free food handouts. We might praise Drew and Devon for accepting Alex even though he is different.
Or we might revel in the variety and richness of these behaviors, accept them all, then walk away into our own lives.