Three years ago an injured duck showed up on the deck of our floating home. We worked to nurse him back to health save for a pronounced limp, and gave him the appellation Bernie the Lame Duck. I’ll give a Bernie update at the end of this story, which is not about a duck but two Canada geese.
For several years this pair of geese has nested on an abandoned half whisky barrel planter set on top of a bollard near our floating home. It’s a great location, high out of the water and not connected to a dock or deck, safe from marauding raccoons, rats, mink, otter, or any other terrestrial egg snatcher. New human neighbors moved in last year adjacent to the bollard and did not like the honking the geese made, especially when they were defending their turf from other goose-nest spot seekers. The geese were harassed and the nest jettisoned, and our evicted friends Bob and Dora left.
Dora and Bob’s original nesting site on the bollard.
They showed up again this year looking for a new place to raise their annual family. Canada geese are devoted partners and mate for life. While the female sits on her eggs, the male patrols his turf, ready to do battle with those who might threaten the tranquility of their temporary digs.
My wife Joan, a devotee of all non-human living things, saw that the couple was sniffing around our deck. She took a wood box built years ago to help keep a potted Japanese maple from blowing into Portage Bay in a wind storm and filled it with eight dollars of hay purchased from the nearby farm store, Portage Bay Grange, located on a tiny triangle of land at the north end of the University Bridge. Why there is a nearby farm store at the end of the University Bridge is anyone’s guess, but there it is.
Dora, with Bob patrolling the waters, inspected the box and a few nearby large flower pots for potential egg deposit sites. She tried each on for size for about a week or two, did small rearrangements of their contents, departed with Bob for a few days, I guess to inspect other sites, and finally settled on the straw-filled container. Joan’s set-up was not nearly good enough for Dora, who spent hours rearranging things never quite to her satisfaction
In order to protect the sprouting flower bulbs in nearby pots we placed sharp sticks in them, as we do every spring, to deter hungry waterfowl. This in no way dissuaded Dora who casually plucked them all out, broke them up and used them as part of the construction of her nest. Next, she gathered up anything green from nearby plants denuding them of their recently emerged growth. As a final touch to her masterwork, she attempted, without success, to line her little home with rubber irrigation lines from the nearby pots. Only then did she settle down to the job of making new little Canadians.
Geese don’t just sit on the nest and crank out eggs one after another. It takes up to a week or more for all to be laid, about one each day, which Dora did like clockwork. In between, she and Bob would go on jaunts, perhaps to harass other still homeless geese, sticking out their tongues in the bird version of nya-nya. And yes, geese do have tongues, ones that are quite articulate as I learned from Bob the one or two times I hand fed him a bit of Bernie’s special duck rehab mix to curry his favor.
At the end of a week there were six big, beautiful eggs. Dora continued to work on her nest, making it higher by compacting the vegetation away from the box’s side imparting a shallow depression on top in which both she and the eggs nestled. Intermittently she would rise from keeping her kids warm and turn the eggs so that the heat from her body would be evenly distributed. Daily she would leave for an hour or so, sometimes accompanied by Bob.
Before departing she covered the eggs out of sight of any predators. Early on Joan saw a raccoon eyeing the potential dinner from one dock over but nothing came of it. I’d think that an angry male goose would be more than enough to deter any raccoon. Some sources say the females don’t eat the whole time they are incubating their progeny, nor do they urinate or defecate to not foul their nest. Others opine differently. Maybe the breaks were to sneak a bite, take a crap, and do the goose version of stretching your legs.
While Dora was tending her eggs, Bob was on duty. He stayed close to the nest most of the time, his attention on repelling any and all interlopers. We had a remarkable influx of hundreds of coots during this time, something we had never seen before on Portage Bay and on occasion Bob would gently escort one or more away from the nest. Only once was he gone for a day and a half, where and why is a mystery. For such noisy creatures, their stay on our float was remarkably quiet once they got down to serious business.
Every now and then a goose got too close sparking Bob into honking and the classic show of aggression, curving and lowering his neck to water level while racing at the invader. Given his home team advantage it always worked. He was never aggressive with us, likely because 1) we never posed any threat 2) you don’t hassle your landlord when receiving a free month’s rent. The scariest event was the day a young bald eagle swept very low over a commotion (yes, commotion is the proper word) of coots nearby and they fled close to the floating homes. Bob went on Defcon 2. Maybe it was the eagle enjoying youthful skylarking by scaring birds, or a novice’s ineptness at hunting, but in the end all coots were accounted for, the eagle departed, and Bob, his honk holstered, was not called into action.
In the morning of day 25 of the baby watch we came downstairs and there it was. A tiny little head sticking out from under mama. Then another, and a third. We watched and waited for a few hours and finally —- four and five, but no six. Time passed and very wobbly, dazed and still wet from his container, appeared the final entry into the world.
Dora’s first gets a bird’s eye view.
Newborns will leave the nest within 24 hours, and our fluffies, now raring to go, were no different. Later that day with mom and dad offering encouragement, the goslings tried mightily to climb up the sides of the box to aquatic freedom. They were willing but not yet able to surmount the heights. I thought it curious that at dusk, with predators out at night the parents would want the goslings in the water. My guess was, knowing that their kids were not yet ready, they were holding a rehearsal for the big show the next day.
Early the next morning, the curtain went up. Bob was in a pot next to the birth box offering lots of oral encouragement and a few nudges, Dora honking in the water was ready to receive her spawn. One by one after herculean struggles each one plopped in. Six was the last one out, struggling mightily, falling off the nest mound a few times, climbing back up and to the cheers of mom and pop and me and Joan finally plopping into the water to join his siblings.
The group swam around for a while, then in a line, mom leading the way, they headed in the direction of the University Bridge. We have not seen them since.
Of the many wonderful memories I have of this time with the geese, there is one favorite. Not being able to sleep, I got up at 3 am one night to read, first taking a peek at the nest through a side window. In moonlight shimmering off the water, Dora was sitting quietly and patiently on her precious eggs; Bob was standing guard on a pot only inches from her. I understand the nature of genetic hard-wiring, yet I was very moved by this portrait of devotion, and though I hesitate to say it, of love.
And now for fans of Bernie the Lame Duck: Bernie, still limping, returned in April, 2022 as he had the past two years, accompanied by Tiffany, his partner for the season. Unlike geese, Mallard ducks partner only at mating time and the drake usually plays no role in nesting and duckling care. In May, Tiffany swam by once with two little ones. A bachelor again, Bernie returned daily for his hand-out. His bad leg worsened and by mid-month he could no longer walk. He would fly on to the deck, plop down, and wait for his snack, rolling on his side to eat.
He was often joined by drakes we called the Bernie Bros. Fully abled, they would sit with him, often at times assisting him to stay upright or help him to his feet. Resting with Bernie in the shade of a large pot, they clearly were taking care of their disabled buddy.
In late May, Joan and I departed for our annual summer stay in New Mexico and entrusted Bernie’s feeding to a neighbor. She said she saw him a few times and then no more. I was sure that we would never see our dear special needs duck again.
I was wrong. Bernie returned this spring about the time the geese were exploring nest sites. With Bob here, even though the two had a détente of sorts, I had to sneak snacks to Bernie when Bob was not around. I came to the back door facing the deck which I would crack open and surreptitiously feed Bernie his drug of choice.
Amazingly, as Bob and Dora assembled their family for departure, who should come plowing through the water making a beeline to our deck — yes, you guessed right. Had he been lurking offshore waiting for this moment? Was there duck ESP at work? A previously agreed upon cross-species arrangement, or did departing Bob give Bernie a heads up indicating it was all his now? If you’ve seen the movie “Witness” with Harrison Ford this scene replicates its ending. In this version Bernie doesn’t get the girl, but the food.
Bernie arrives every morning about dawn and patiently waits for us to get up, notice him, and bring our offering. Sometimes he hangs around on the deck for an hour or two. Hopefully, everyone is back next year for another full house, and more little Canadians.
Photos courtesy of Joan Zegree. Some with glare were taken through a window so as not to disturb the nest.