What can an anthropologist (who specializes in humans) learn from an unlikely species (like a goose)?
Plenty, it turns out.
My husband and I went goose-banding the other day, thanks to my husband adventurous spirit in discovering a creative, public-outreach program organized by our coastal state’s Department of Environmental Management (“DEM”).
Knowledgeable staff from that department’s Division of Fisheries and Wildlife instructed a small group of citizen-scientists how to herd geese scattered around a large pond, via a strategically managed caravel of kayaks.
The geese are moulting their flight feathers right now. For a few vulnerable weeks every summer, they’re stuck in the water and can’t fly. Scientific teams takes annual advantage of this brief, flight-less period to herd them for identification. (Biologists band nearly 150,000 geese in North America each year.)
In their temporarily terrestrial state, the birds are easily guided by kayaks that surround them to funnel the creatures ever more tightly into a compact group.
Once nudged gently to a small spot along the shore, our geese found themselves directed into a square enclosure assembled on the spot by more volunteers and staffers.
Thus corralled into a manageable space, the geese next endured the more intrepid volunteers among our group learning to wrangle them, one by one.
The wrangler then gently handed her temporary prisoner off to a staff partner.
The partner then sat with the goose and managed to clip an aluminum band, imprinted with a unique number, around one leg of each goose.
Then the goose endured gentle poking around under its tail feathers to have its sex identified.
Other volunteers (including yours truly) recorded the tag numbers, along with the bird’s age (adult/juvenile) and gender.
Later that day, the scientists on the team would share the data with a federal registry office staffed by biologists–the Bird Banding Laboratory of the U.S. Geological Survey, Biological Resources Division, in Laurel, Maryland.
At some time in the future, if a hunter shoots one of those geese (or anyone encounters one of these geese anywhere), s/he should contact that lab to share the goose’s banded number. Scientists will use the data to understand more about the lifespan, habits, and vulnerabilities of the geese. Perhaps global warming-induced change might be inferred. As the lab’s website explains:
Because birds are good indicators of the health of the environment, the status and trends of bird populations are critical for identifying and understanding many ecological issues and for developing effective science, management and conservation practices.
So much for the day’s mechanics, and the long-term goals of this worthy scientific project.
As for me, here’s what I learned from thinking about our day’s outing as an anthropologist.
1. Geese are the subject of powerful human stereotypes.
“Mean,” “stupid,” and “herd-like” recurred as assumptions readily evoked by friends and neighbors who heard about my husband’s and my plan to go goose-banding.
2. Geese are widely reviled in urban and suburban America.
From my non-scientific sample of friends and neighbors, I conclude that geese are commonly condemned for their repulsive, slippery, and pervasive droppings on lawns, outdoor running tracks, and park greens alike. Nor did my friends express admiration for their loud honking.
In fact, my pals all expressed grave disappointment on learning that my husband and I declined to kill all the geese we encountered at close range.
3. Conflicting stereotypes describe humans’ attitudes toward geese.
Despite their image as dirty, loud, aggressive beasts, geese also enjoy a fleeting reputation for their graceful, “V”-shaped migrating flights. As long as they remain far overhead, humans seem willing to cut them some slack and enjoy their passing beauty.
4. Geese aren’t as dumb as they seem.
Inside our pens, some birds climbed on top of others, making thoughtful efforts to turn their mates into ladders and escape over the top of their pen.
Well, it’s true that they failed at these efforts. Perhaps their brains required just a few more synaptic connections to discern that they needed one more storey of goose floor to reach over the pen’s top edge.
Still, I admired some of their perseverance.
5. Geese don’t just represent factory-like replicas of their species.
The birds we banded actually displayed individual personalities.
When we herded them into the pens, a few squawked mightily. Some even stuck out their tongues and hissed. Others vaguely whined. Some complied with docility. Most remained quiescent, thinking their private goose thoughts.
6. Geese feel emotions.
As the kayakers approached the shore, the staffers instructed us to hide quietly behind the marsh grasses.
If the birds spotted or heard us, the staff warned us volunteers, the geese would become scared. That might stress them even more.
7. Age matters.
While the adults in our pens varied impressively in their behavior, the goslings collectively seemed far less variable. In fact, they all appeared vulnerable. They found themselves easily trapped under the weight of the larger, older geese. I’m sure I even noticed some of them sweating. The biologists in our group became nervous about the risk of the juveniles being crushed to death and instructed the wranglers to extract the babies first.
Thankfully, they were all rescued in time.
So what did I learn about humans from my day hanging out with these water fowl?
It’s true that Canada geese occupy a far lower point on the evolutionary scale than do humans.
But that’s precisely what struck me about the occupants of our temporary enclosures.
Even the (evolutionarily) lowly Canada geese are complicated, intentional, worthy of respect for individuals, and defy our essentializing stereotypes.
Shouldn’t the same apply in spades to our fellow humans?