Few of the early signs of spring arrive with such soul-stirring suddenness as migrating Canada geese. It probably will catch you by surprise, as it does me.
The first thing you notice is the sound, a distinctive ripple of notes drifting down to earth from somewhere overhead. The rhythm is continuous, like the soft rushing of waves on a beach.
You look up and see a flock of birds flying in V-formation, high in the sky, strung together like beads on a string and heading due north with a singular purpose. Your heart takes leap, and suddenly it feels like your spirit right up there is soaring with the birds.
Canada geese are among the first birds to migrate in the spring. They follow close on the heels of the retreating snow line, where the temperature averages 35 degrees. They usually arrive in western Kansas in February, at about the same time as the advancing 35-degree isotherm.
This year, approximately 200 geese wintered in a section of open water on the lake in town. As the weather warms up, most of those birds will join the fleet of migrants heading north, while others will stay behind to breed in the spring and summer.
Geese are sociable, and they like being together. They usually pair for life, and they remain together in families or in larger groups except when nesting. Fiercely courageous, the male staunchly defends the home while the female incubates the eggs.
A common sight is of a family swimming single file, the male leading a troupe of young and the female trailing.
One summer, I came upon a family of geese floating on Big Creek. Seeing me, they promptly formed a line and paddled away, except for one that had a mind to do its own thing. The female quickly circled around, and with wings flapping, she whipped the wayward child back into line. There seems to be one of those in every family.
The Canada goose is a large, heavy bird, and although they are adept swimmers, they give the impression of being awkward in their gait. Their flight seems labored, and they run along a few steps on land or water before taking to the air. It is only in migration that they reach the pinnacle of grace.
Geese migrate at an altitude of 2,000 to 8,000 feet, and they have been reported as high as 29,000 feet. They fly in a V-formation to conserve energy; each bird but the first one gets a lift from the air current stirred up by the bird in front. When the lead bird gets tired, it drops back and another one goes to the front.
The bar-head geese of Europe follow what is called a “roller coaster route.” Instead of flying at the same elevation, they move up and down to take advantage of the changing density of the air. Air of a higher density creates more lift, and that helps to conserve energy in long flights.
Canada geese also fly a roller coaster route, but no one as yet seems to know why. A flock of migrating geese suddenly will break out of formation and start flying in circles when they enter an updraft. They keep soaring in circles, riding the air current like an elevator until they gain considerable altitude, then they just as suddenly fall back into formation and continue their migration.
In the following weeks, more geese will join the wave of migrants heading to their home on the Hudson Bay. There is no word in our language to express the grandeur of this mass movement.
Exaltation comes pretty close. Exaltation is an old English term for a flock of larks, hence the expression “an exaltation of larks.” Unfortunately, the term has fallen out of use. I never have seen an English lark, but I know geese and I know how they make me feel in the spring, seeing them flow through the sky like ribbons drifting in the wind.
It’s sad to see such a beautiful collective noun like exaltation perish from neglect, when at the same time we have this amazing convocation of geese in the spring, this choreographed dance of migration for which we have no word at all. It seems only fitting we should resurrect the term and give it to the geese.
So, exaltation it will be. It captures all the wonder, excitement and majesty of migrating geese. The feeling is part triumph in coming to the end of winter, part joy in grasping the first tangible sign of spring, and just plain part magic.
A flock of geese on the ground is still a gaggle, but a flock of geese weaving its way high across the sky is clearly an exaltation.
Richard Weber is a nature enthusiast living in Ellis County.