The Flock That Forgot to Fly South

ALTHOUGH Neptune's great salt wash laves our periphery, the Back River is still a small estuary more scenic than commercial. We esteem it for the birds that pass rather than the clams that lurk in the mud - even if clams are fetching heap-big wampum the half-bushel hod. However, this has been the gooseless fall, and if the honkers have gone south I didn't bid them farewell. Geese do nest in Maine betimes, and I have seen them nesting on the Georges River, not above 10 miles from our home.

But at Back River, while we get other sea birds, the wild goose (Canada) occurs only in passing, a spring and fall disturbance in the sky as the flocks wing toward Manitoba and then back down the flyway. That I have seen none this season, nor heard any, probably means something in the weather lore, but I don't remember. I know I have yearned to hear a flock, day to day, since the goldenrod first popped in the meadow, and have wondered, day to day, if I have been deserted.

When we do have geese in our Back River, they have come winging in, I surmise, to rest the night. I think they don't alight here for food. They are restless and stay alert all night, chatting to themselves. When I step out in the morning, having heard them chatting beyond my bedroom window, I face the tide and wait for them to rise and fly. When you see a flock of geese high in the sky, they have been on the way for some time and have their formation precise.

But my flock, leaving the water about 200 feet from me, are in a jumble of silly-goose disorder, and don't have their honks in presentable cadence. They get all-of-a-flap when my house roof is in the way and they know not to dodge under, hop over, or go out around. I'm sure, by their indecision, that a leader has not yet assumed charge, and it will be a mile, maybe five miles, before the flock will angle away, form lines, and shape up.

While skimming my roof-ridge, the birds talk confused nonsense, but before they get beyond my hearing they are back on discernable honks and making some sense. Depending on the seasonal direction, I ask to be remembered to Hank and Marion, who left for their winter in Florida, or I tell `em to shun Rory MacIver, who guides for goose shooting at Hudson Bay. Whichever route lies ahead, north or south, the geese leave Back River by way of my roof. Except for this fall.

Ducks from the flyway nest hereabouts aplenty, and on the islands down Muscongus Bay there are heronries in the spruce trees. It's comical to see the great blue herons standing on their lanky legs atop a 100-foot spruce, keeping tabs on the ``incubating'' wives who somehow contrive to fold their lanky limbs and sit on the eggs. Islands that are sanctuaries have signs warning visitors away, as the sea ducks nest on the ground so close ``apart'' that a human can't pass without stepping on eggs. So you'll need a boat to get there, and stay in it while you watch.

Mallards don't mind having folks around, and after the little ones hatch Momma often trots them ashore so summer cottagers can feed them. A handful of cracked corn will tame wild mallards in minutes.

When I was a boy busy with my 4-H-club laying hens, I worked in a clutch of domesticated mallards that were great fun. Fact is, I entered some in the poultry show at the fair, and since the judge didn't know what to do about varieties that weren't included in the American Standard of Perfection, he got himself off his hook by giving my two drakes and six hens a blue ribbon each. I got only one blue for my whole flock of 4-H lovelies.

Charley Bailey, a neighbor to us, had gone to the shore on a handsome May morning to take a mess of clams for family purposes, and on his way back he flushed a mallard hen from her nest. Mallards like to nest at a distance from the water, and Charley wasn't expecting one this far from the beach. He carefully put the eggs in his hat, laid the hat atop his pail of clams, and continued homeward.

He had a broody hen at the time, and that evening at dusk he arranged the hen on his wild-duck eggs, patted the hen to encourage her, and retired to await the results. The mother mallard had already done most of the work, so in two days Charley had over a dozen fluffy mallard ducklings that were coaxing the hen out of the hatching nest into a pail of water. Charley was fascinated by all this and became the devoted parent of his ducklings, making them a special pen where they could have water in a tub.

Ducklings grow fast and mature quickly, and before long Charley said something was ``at'' his ducks. He'd lost one each night for three nights. This sounded like an owl, so we presumed an owl, and the next morning Charley came to say he had the owl. It was a great horned owl, stately and magnificent. Charley made a cage for it and the owl became a municipal asset: Tourists would stop to look. In the fall, to thank me, Charley gave me a pair of his wild ducks.

When Charley's owl became too much of a care, Charley made a traveling cage, moved his owl into it, and sent the bird to the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston. The thing had never lost its wild nature, and Charley had tried to tame it without the slightest effect. The curator of the Franklin Park Zoo took one look and sent the owl back to Charley, along with form letter No. 3. The zoo was grateful for his thoughtful gift, but Franklin Park already had an owl. I went away to college about then, and lost touch.

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