When Fred and Ethyl fly in, it's almost spring

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With their wingtips dipped like the Concorde, Fred and Ethyl touched down gracefully on our still partially frozen pond this morning to begin their annual visit.

There are a million and a half Canada geese on the Mississippi Flyway, the avian Interstate that extends from the Gulf of Mexico wetlands to the Hudson Bay. So how do I know these two are Fred and Ethyl? It's easy: For other geese, our pond is just another "Motel 6" at the exit; Fred and Ethyl think it's their time share.

They immediately waddle over to the stream inlet to look for the succulent shoots they know from past visits are growing there. When I walk by with Apollo, our German shepherd, they paddle over to honk their hellos. Their arrival at our farm in Appalachian Ohio is the unmistakable harbinger of spring.

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Fred is protective and possessive, vigilant and watchful. It's great entertainment to watch him play torpedo. When other geese land, he flies partway toward them, dives, and charges from underwater with outstretched neck. "Don't mess with my Ethyl," he honks.

I have an image in my mind of him flying back and forth alone at dusk last year, honking and searching. The next morning he was still alone on the pond. All the other pond visitors were paired up: the mallards, a couple of wood ducks, and two tiny guys whose identities I'd have to look up in my bird guide. Only Fred was alone.

Later that day, Ethyl finally flew in honking. Honking his head off in return, Fred flew up to meet her, and together they executed a perfect landing. True love.

Some years they stay to begin a family. Once Apollo "borrowed" one of the goslings. We were walking in the field when we encountered Fred and Ethyl escorting their brood of four to a pond several miles away. After an avian Armageddon - but where no one was actually hurt - Apollo ran to me, carrying one of the little ones in his large mouth with an "it's only fair, they have four and we have none" expression on his face.

I accepted the fledgling. It was drenched with dog saliva, but didn't have a feather out of place. I'll admit I briefly reflected that it would be nice to keep him; after all, we could guarantee him safety while his chances of survival in the wild seemed limited. But I released him to his parents' custody.

They avoided us for some time after that, but about six weeks later, Fred and Ethyl flew in bringing one young goose with them. I'd like to think it was the one that had gotten the ride from Apollo.

Fred and Ethyl and the mallards, bluebirds, red-winged blackbirds, and purple martins that annually follow them have probably been regulars at our pond longer than we have. These visitors brighten our lives for a month ora little longer, and then they'll honk through their takeoff sequence one last time and continue their journey north.

I've read that "Canada goose" in Inuktitut is nirlik, but I'd love to know how to say "Fred and Ethyl." I'd like to put out the word that they're on their way.

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