As you will already be aware, if you have been following these annals from the beginning, I find the birdlife in the places I have lived to be of absorbing interest, but none of the many species I came across intruded themselves into our lives to the same extent as did the Egyptian geese.
We arrived in Iswepe in early spring and on our first exploration of the environs of the dam, we were enchanted to see a pair of these birds gliding serenely around the dam with thirteen of the sweetest little goslings in tow. Clearly, they had taken the biblical injunction of going forth and multiplying very seriously!
A week or so later, when doing my self-imposed gosling census, I was disturbed to see that one little gosling had disappeared. As the days passed, so their numbers dwindled until there were only five left. This was quite distressing, and I began to think that soon there would be none left at all. What could possibly be picking these dear little things off so systematically? Feral dogs? Fish? Herons? Raptors?
However, to my relief, the five goslings not only survived but thrived, and by the end of the breeding season they all took off, no doubt to go and make their way in the goose world and have families of their own, leaving their parents behind to enjoy the satisfaction of a job well done.
And then my romantically rose-tinted birdlife spectacles were shattered.
One night, just when Iswepe’s bitterly cold winter was drawing to an end, our sleep was disturbed by a cacophony coming from the direction of the dam. We immediately assumed from the sound of honking that the Egyptian geese were under attack. The racket was continuous, so whatever was attacking them was not able to reach them and we had this image in our minds of two highly stressed out geese having to spend the night in the middle of the cold dam to avoid being made a meal of by whatever was stalking them on the banks.
As soon as dawn provided enough light, we made haste to the bottom of the garden. Who knew? Perhaps it would be a serval, which we had only once before had a fleeting glimpse of in the Kruger Park.
And what do we find?
Merely a second pair of Egyptian geese!
The two pairs waddled around on opposite banks of the dam, hissing and honking non-stop at each other in the rudest way. After exhausting their vocabulary of goose curses, the hissing ganders flew up and swooped down on each other, striking with their beaks and beating each other with their wings, while their mates spurred them on with wild honking.
When they had utterly wearied themselves, they called a temporary truce to sift the water for duckweed and other tasty delicacies, and, no doubt, to catch forty winks amongst the reeds. As soon as they had recovered their strength, they continued the battle.
Day and night the war waged on.
Now, while I have a husband and son, who can, as Tasha puts it, sleep upside down in a chimney with chipmunks nibbling their toes, both Tasha and I are constructed of more sensitive stuff. My room must not only be dark (I sleep with a mask), but it must be quiet. (Snoring husbands are not affectionately regarded.)
Mercifully, the house was far enough from the dam to mute the sound somewhat, but my sleep was still disturbed and, in the three days of Goose War One, my fondness for Egyptian geese rapidly evaporated.
I had had no idea how fiercely territorial they are, and the battle to defend their territory is as ferocious as the onslaught from the intruders is relentless. Those handsome birds with their regal bearing turned out to be vicious beasts with murderous intent!
By the fourth day the defenders managed to drive the intruders off. At least, that was what we assumed. It might well have been the intruders which had succeeded in routing the incumbents.
For a while we did not see much of them and then, one day, there they were, gliding around the dam with seven little balls of fluff in tow. Needless to say, I was not quite as enchanted as before. In fact, you could even go so far as to say that I regarded them with an eye which was decidedly jaundiced.
During the nine years of our stay in Iswepe, we learnt to live with the situation, for the goose wars were waged every spring. (And one frightful year there were three pairs battling it out! I eventually wished they would just kill each other and be done with it.)
Egyptian geese nest high up in trees, often stealing the nests of other large birds. When the time comes for the little goslings to leave the nest, they simply leap out of the nest to join their parents waiting for them down below. As they are quite unable to fly, it is a mystery how they don’t kill themselves.
There were two other properties adjoining Iswepe dam besides ours, and all three provided plenty of large trees for nesting. There was also a grove of tall blue-gums right at the water’s edge on the opposite side of the dam. However, we were surprised to discover that this pair nested in a huge pine next to the fence of one of the gardens in Iswepe village, a whole kilometre away. This meant quite a hazardous journey for the parents to get the goslings to the relative safety of the water. Not only would they have to avoid the usual predators but they would also have to cross a railway line. So why they nested where they did is another goose mystery.
Quite unwittingly, we increased the dangers the goslings had to face.
To give us easy access to the dam to make use of the canoe we acquired, we had a gate put into the fence at the lower end of the garden. This gate had wide bars, and the goslings could now get into the garden with ease, following their parents, who often unwisely flew over the fence to forage on our lawn.
Unable to fly yet, the half-grown goslings were easy prey for the dogs, and after finding Wolfie snacking on one, we learnt to first check that the garden was clear before we let the dogs out. But, besides the fact that the size of the garden made this a time-consuming task, we did not always remember to do so, so successive broods of goslings had quite a few close shaves, and we did still have several fatalities.
When we moved to Hermannsburg, we were quite startled to discover that there were three resident pairs of geese on the dam, which was half the size of the Iswepe dam. How could this possibly be?
We came to the conclusion that the Hermannsburg geese were of a more refined and cultured stock than their Iswepe counterparts. Each pair had their little family of goslings and they kept to their own section of the dam, one to the west, one more or less in the middle, opposite our garden, and the other to the east.
With the dam being so much smaller, we were able to get much closer to them than we had been able to on the Iswepe dam and it was quite fascinating to see how the goslings behaved.
When we paddled too close, they dived down into the water and disappeared for so long that, at first, we were convinced they were going to drown. But they always resurfaced, and so much further away, that we just had to marvel. That such tiny creatures could hold their breath for so long and swim so far underwater was quite amazing.
Then, late that first winter, the truth was revealed.
It would appear that we had been labouring under a delusion and the peaceful co-existence was a facade.
Yes, the Hermannsburg Goose Wars had begun!
Day and night those three pairs of geese hissed and honked and flew at each other till I began to wish the black-backed jackal we had seen on one of our walks would come and dispatch them once and for all! It was much worse than at Iswepe because the house was so much closer to the dam.
My displeasure notwithstanding, I found no comfort in their attempts to kill each other. On one occasion, I was standing on the jetty when two ganders tussled on the water just a few metres away from me. The stronger of the two almost succeeded in drowning the other one and I did not find this either interesting or exciting. It was downright traumatising!
The war eventually came to an end when the three pairs called a truce and once again peace descended on the dam. Soon there were again three little families of goslings pretending to be cute. (Yes, I know what lies latent inside each little ball of fluff. A vicious thug, that’s what!)
As far as I could tell, the goslings never came into our garden in the early years of our stay in Hermannsburg, possibly because the dogs roamed freely and their presence would certainly have been a deterrent.
This changed after Pixie joined our family.
Late one afternoon, Tasha was out in the garden with the dogs who were excitedly scratching about under the hedge. To her horror, Pixie came out from under the hedge proudly carrying a half-grown gosling between her jaws. The poor little thing was quite dead, its head dangling limply. Tasha took it from her and then realised that it was actually still alive. She brought it inside and I fetched an empty apple box from the store room in which it could die in peace. Examination revealed no serious injury that we could see, other than a few minor lacerations, but it must have suffered severe internal trauma because it just drooped lifelessly in Tasha’s hands.
We placed the box in the study and Tasha gently put the gosling into the box. Instantly it sprang back to vigorous life and tried to escape. We managed to get it back into the box and put the top on. By now it was getting dark, so we decided to keep it overnight and, if it was still alive the following morning, we would release it onto the dam. It was still trying to get out of the box, and as it had lost no time in proving that its digestive tract was working very well, and as I had no desire to find the carpet in the study ankle deep in guano, I placed a heavy pile of books on top of the box to keep it securely closed. I just hoped that it would not try to force its way through the slots cut into top of the sides of the box to facilitate carrying. We switched off the light and shut the door.
Early the following morning, all was quiet when I went into the study. Either the gosling had died overnight or it had philosophically accepted its imprisonment. I opened the box and it leaped up. But I was prepared and immediately grabbed it, noting from the state of the bottom of the box that the books had been a very good idea. The moment I had the bird in my hands, it ceased struggling and played dead, its neck hanging down limply. It kept up this lifeless appearance while Tasha and I made our way down to the dam to search for its parents. Our difficulty was increased by the mist which had descended on the dam during the night.
After a short search we dimly saw the family which frequented the dam opposite our garden. We were not sure if it was the correct family and also, as they were on the far side, whether the gosling would be able to see them. We decided to go ahead and let nature take its course.
I went to the water’s edge and leaned down to place the apparently dead gosling in the water. As its webbed feet touched the surface of the water, it miraculously revived. Head stretched forward, little wings beating and feet paddling furiously, it quite literally ran over the surface of the water straight towards the group of geese on the opposite side. As soon as it reached them it settled down and within seconds there was no sign that anything untoward had ever occurred.
The family must have been foraging on the grassy bank of the dam at the lower end of our garden and then the gosling must have entered the garden through the bars of the gate. It had obviously lost its bearings and was trying to get through the fence when Pixie found it under the hedge.
That Pixie had not killed it continued to be an astonishment to us. As it turned out, this was no accident, as we discovered shortly after our move to Uvongo, but that is another story.
As a footnote: Over the years, I have been quite bemused by the sight of dozens of Egyptian geese apparently living in peace together in places we have visited, including dams and waterholes in the Kruger Park, and various golf courses around the country.
What happens there in the spring I would love to know.
My mind, she boggles!
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