It's a bird, it's a plane, it's ... a sign of spring

Each year, early in March, I look for signs of spring. Last year, a dramatic "sign of spring" found me. I call home a fourth-floor condominium in a north Chicago suburb. One Sunday afternoon I was perusing the home and garden section of the Sunday paper, mentally planning my balcony garden. While I was making a list of desirable plants – lobelia, sweet alyssum, and ageratum – I heard a whoosh of feathers, and a gander the size of a huge watermelon swooped onto my balcony floor.

I assumed he was a gander because of his size. Evidently, he was on a reconnaissance mission, searching for the right nesting place for his mate for life. He was checking for visibility, security, and a nearby supply of fresh grasses and water.

After carefully exploring the perimeter of the balcony, softly honking, he gracefully hopped onto my raised garden plot and swooshed away.

A few weeks later, I looked out at my proposed garden site and discovered that Mother Goose – as I instantly began calling her – had made a shallow depression in the soil and lined it with grass and down from her breast. I could see that she had laid her eggs already – four, possibly five, creamy white eggs.

Several urgent questions came to mind. So I called the Chicago Botanic Garden and asked to speak with their resident ornithologist.

"John Spencer speaking," he replied in a pleasant baritone voice. I introduced myself, explained my new tenant, and asked him my troubling questions: "Can she be moved? How long is her gestation period? When the goslings hatch, can they reach the ground safely? Will she need food and water?"

Mr. Spencer answered with assurance from his longtime interaction with geese.

"No, she can't be moved, as no egg would hatch," he said. "She will remain on the nest about 30 days. Then the goslings will slide safely to the ground, if you don't live over a paved parking lot."

"No," I replied. "My balcony garden is over shrubs and grass. It looks as though I'll have a tenant for a month. What can I do for her – food, water?"

Spencer suggested that I give her a fresh bowl of water each day. Food wasn't necessary.

He also assured me that she would remain on the nest most of the time. If she did fly off, she wouldn't be gone for more than a half hour. He also volunteered the welcome fact that she wouldn't make a mess.

I settled in as the mother-to-be's water provider. That first day, I cautiously brought her a bowl of water. As I approached the nest, she stretched out her neck, opened her wide beak, and hissed warningly. But from that day on, she trusted me to quietly remove the muddy water and replace it with fresh water.

With her beak, Mother Goose gently turned over each egg every day.

I looked for Father Goose, as he naturally came to be called, during this period and saw him only once – on the perimeter of the parking lot.

I worried about his safety as well as that of Mother Goose and the goslings-to-be.

"My" goose was the focus of interest for the residents of Shermer Square for 30 days. Neighbors would frequently knock on my door, asking, "Can I peek at Mother Goose today?"

One neighbor, Katie, took pictures. Another, Jann, watched frequently from her second-floor balcony. Joanne volunteered to give the goose fresh water when I had to be away for a few days.

On the 30th day, I peeked out at the nest and saw four newly hatched goslings, pale yellow balls of fluff, peeping and trying to stand up.

The next day, Father Goose arrived on the ground below the balcony. He "called" to Mother Goose to join him. She did. Then, with urgent honking sounds, the parents called up to the 1-day-old goslings to come down and join them.

One gosling hurled its fluffy new self over the balcony railing. Jann watched this unfold. She ran downstairs, expecting to see an unconscious gosling lying there. Instead, the gosling was upright and obediently standing by its parents.

Another gosling and then the third jumped off the fourth-floor balcony railing and glided down safely.

The last one was more stubborn and wouldn't budge from its safe perch. The parents alternately called and scolded until the little one understood: It was jump or be left behind. He/she finally leapt into the air and floated to the ground.

When all four goslings were lined up, Father Goose turned around and started waddling toward the adjoining forest preserve with Mother Goose as the rear guard. Father Goose had a particular pond in mind for their new home.

As I watched the goose family head off toward the nearby woods, I felt as I did when each of my children went off to college – proud, but also sad.

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