The little flock of seven Cackling Geese was foraging in the field beside Shoveler’s Pond today. They’ve been here all winter, but they won’t stay much longer. They are tundra breeders, and soon they will heed the call of the Far North. When the wind blows in from the south one day, they will lift their heads, study the sky briefly, and then they will take off. Perhaps they will circle the Fill once or twice, as I have seen them do many times in the past few weeks. But instead of studying the fields to select just the right one for succulent grass, they will give their distinctive yipping call, and then they’ll be gone, heading for a place I have never been, never seen, except in my imagination.
Cackling Geese are a recently named species. Formerly, they were considered to be a subspecies of our familiar Canada Geese, just a lot smaller (scarcely larger than Mallards) and equipped with dinky beaks. REALLY dinky beaks. But a few years ago, the American Orni-thological Union, the folks who decree which birds shall merit species designations and which shall not, decided the Cacklers were different enough from Canadas to deserve their own category. Plus, no one had observed the tiny Cacklers interbreeding with the ginormous Canadas, so there you go.
It was easy today to see why the AOU folks had come to this decision. The Cacklers were foraging beside two Canada Geese, and the differences were dramatic. As I was studying both species, a jogger happened by. “Gosh,” she said, “I didn’t realize the geese were having babies so early. Just look at those cute little guys.”
“Oh, those aren’t baby Canada Geese,” I replied. “They’re a completely different species of goose. They’re Cacklers.”
There was a long, silent pause. Then, “Er, don’t all geese cackle?” the jogger asked.
Without thinking, I said, “Goodness no. These geese yip like terriers.”
We stared at each other as we both processed how little sense I had just made. I grinned foolishly. The jogger back-pedaled a few feet, carefully keeping me in view, then when she judged she had put enough distance between us, she turned and ran off. I looked around for the nearest fence. Clearly, I needed to sit on it and swing my feet aimlessly while chanting, “Doh-de-doh-de-doh.”
Once again, birding had made me look like the village idiot.