Do Canada geese mate for life?
September 21, 2006
By Choo Choo Rosenbloom
Nobel Prize laureate Dr. Konrad Lorenz, Father of the Greylag geese, devoted his lifetime to the study of geese. In The Year of the Greylag Goose (in my opinion, the best book about geese and animal behavior ever written), Dr. Lorenz mentioned that in his many years of observing geese, he only witnessed three instances in which a pair split up after breeding and raising their young. Goose pairs generally remain faithfully united until death unless "dramatic circumstances" intervene, for example, if the original pairing was not strong because either one of the partners had lost his/her first great love and acquired the new partner as a substitute. In two of the three instances, the same gander was unfaithful. This gander had previously lost his first great love.
I have been observing Canada geese for six years and I can tell you from experience that the pairs I have bonded with - The Franks, The Chesters, and The White Wings - have remained loyal and faithful to each other the whole time.
I have been friends with The Franks for six years and The White Wings and The Chesters for four years. During that time, they have remained with the same mate and their marriages appear to be strong.
Canada geese parents are loyal to their goslings and vice-versa. In 2003, The Franks raised two goslings. In 2004, their nest was destroyed during a May snowstorm. They joined their two children at an unknown molting location in June. All four returned to the park pond in September.
According to Dr. Lorenz, geese possess a veritably human capacity for grief. In his conversations with laymen, he would frequently say, "Animals are much less intelligent than you are inclined to think, but in their feelings and emotions they are far less different from us than you assume." Quite literally, a man, a dog, and a goose hang their heads, lose their appetites, and become indifferent to all stimuli emanating from the environment. For grief-striken human beings, as well as for geese, one effect is that they become outstandingly vulnerable to accidents; they tend to fly into high-tension cables or fall prey to predators because of their reduced alertness.
After the death of his beloved mate, Ado attached himself to Dr. Lorenz. According to Dr. Lorenz, "...Ado would shyly creep up after me, his body hunched in sadness, and he would remain motionless about 25 or 30 feet away." Ado spent the remainder of the year sad and isolated.
There have been reports of pair bonds that are so strong that if one goose is shot down by a hunter, the partner will circle back. Drawn by its need to stay with its lifelong companion, the single goose will often ignore the sound of shooting and return to die with its mate.
In The Pig Who Sang To The Moon, Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson writes about a goose who had a broken wing. During the fall migration, as other geese flew south, her gander accompanied her by air and by foot. She was going to walk south since she was unable to fly. He would not leave her, so after flying for a few hundred yards, he would stop and wait for her to catch up. He would call to her with his wildest, most piercing cry, urging her to spread her wings and fly with him to their distant home. He accompanied her until she was killed by carrion eagles and he had to continue his journey alone.
Widowed geese have been observed circling around and around, crying in heartrending sorrowful tones when their partners die or are murdered by hunters. The remaining goose may mourn for a period of time and then mate again. Or they may mourn for the rest of their lives and never seek another mate. Just as with people, it varies with individual geese.
Some people say that animals are incapable of love and that their behaviour is instinct. How then, do we describe such devotion and sacrifice? Do animals have to tell us that they love and care for each other in English or in Chinese in order for us to acknowledge that they do?