“See the geese in chevron flight flapping and racing on before the snow
They’ve got the urge for going, they’ve got the wings to go.”
–Joni Mitchell, “Urge for Going”
Early fall is generally beautiful here in southern New Jersey. The days are still warm, the nights cool, and the sky is a clear, vivid blue. Gradually over the next few weeks, as the daylight hours grow shorter, the sky develops a violet cast. Even days that are freakishly warm are somehow melancholy—the angle of the sun is wrong, the light is dimmer, and despite the temperature, nature whispers, “Winter is coming.”
A few days ago, just before Thanksgiving, I was awakened by the honking of geese as they flew over my house. It was probably about four o’clock in the morning. I dozed off again, and then as I awoke at my usual 5:15 AM time, they came back, honking so loudly that even the cat by my side was startled.
I wondered then—why are they so noisy? And why are they flying in the dark? And why do they like my house? Of course, I looked it up later (not the part about my house), and found mostly that scientists do not know a whole lot about the subject. I did discover that most birds call out as they migrate. Often we don’t hear them because they fly at night. Well, so much for the early bird. Or maybe the early bird gets the worm, but the late night bird gets the prime location? (Great view! Only a few predators!) I know that birds often call as they fly over our house and yard and around the bird feeder, but that’s just one isolated call—“great eats here!” Or “watch out for that hawk.” It’s not a group that’s migrating. But then I started wondering about words for collections of animals—you know, flock of geese, murder of crows. I remembered this video about a murmuration of starlings. If you’ve never seen it, it’s beautiful. It actually has nothing to do with birdcalls, but murmuration is a great word. So just go with it.
Now that you’ve been amazed, back to the geese. I found some information that suggested the V formation used by geese and some other birds is helpful both in orienting the birds and also in helping them to communicate. Apparently, too, the leader of the V changes, according to some unknown bird hierarchy or schedule. Personally, I think they draw up a daily or weekly chores list, a rota of routing, you might say (but probably wouldn’t).
But what do those honks mean? I do wonder what geese talk about as they fly. Those honks can’t just be random. (What me anthropomorphize? My cats do talk, don’t yours?) I imagine conversations like these:
“I’m the leader. I say we turn right at the red house to get to the lake.”
“Gabe, you’re wrong! Why won’t you listen to me?! Boy, I can’t wait till it’s my turn to be leader.”
“Well, it’s my turn now, so shut up, already.”
“Mommmmmm! I’ve got to go!”
“Just hold it a bit longer, Sally. We’re coming up to a good windshield. Wait for it. . .one, two, three, go!”
“That’s my girl. Your aim is getting much better! A double shot–windshield and car roof!”
“Oh, Sylvia. Did you notice how Frank can’t keep his eyes off of you? Didn’t you hear him honking at you?”
“I’m ignoring him; I’m not interested. His feathers are always dirty.”
“Gabe, I told you this was the wrong way. Now, we’re gonna have to turn around.”
“Shut up, Joe! I’m the leader for two more days!”
“Hey, Joe! Hey Gabe! Did you notice Sylvia looking at me?”
“Shut up, Frank. We’re busy looking for the lake. Sylvia’s not interested in you. Ewww– Don’t you ever clean your feathers? “
“Mom! Mom! MOMMMMMMMMMMMMM!”
“Sally, what’s the matter?”
“Are we there yet?”
I know nothing about birds—obviously–but how do you know they’re not having conversations like this? Listen closely the next time they come flying and honking over your house. You just might hear them in a whole different way.
Joni Mitchell’s “Urge for Going” is one of my favorite fall songs. Here’s a young Joni Mitchell performing the song. Enjoy.