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Of Tossed Walls and Broody Birds

By Rebecca Ridgway Ayars

Canadian geese water sunset lake

We met the new neighbors quite by accident one April Sunday.  It was one of those days when, instead of jumping in the car to chase adventure, you opt to stay where you are and let it come to you. And so, after a leisurely dog walk, we lingered at an elevated spot that, in springtime, offers a clear view of the pond below. The pond, in turn, dazzled us with an unprecedented show. A majestic great blue heron stalked his evening meal in the shallow, unfurling his coiled, elegant neck while patiently wading through shifting mirrors of sky blue and billowing white. A blood-curdling scream soon redirected us to a soaring red-tailed falcon – her impressive span dry brushed in burnt umber and delicate beiges – and the squirming treat dangling from her talons.

Then, I spotted her at water’s edge. A demure, broody migrant so perfectly camouflaged that I strained to distinguish well-feathered tail from twigged nursery. In the lead-up to Mother’s Day, the unexpected apparition readily churned up memories of my own journey into parenthood. Of how a maternal surge upended life as I knew it but, gratefully, carried in a profound understanding of what the exciting (and terrifying) chapter would require. What I saw that afternoon was not a wild goose on a rock, but a new mom doing all she could to create a secure and happy nest.

Visiting daily, sometimes thrice, I found Mother Goose always as I left her, still but not idle on her stony perch and unwavering in the season’s drenching rains and punishing winds. Bob readily joined my watch; we traded sightings with our concerns about the army of predators — owls, red fox, coyote, snapping turtles, and even, ermine weasels  — lying in wait. And happily noticed her unwinking watchman, an identically-marked, bigger gander patrolling the area, was ready to fight off any visiting toughs.

Our outlook was a strip of tender grass bordered by a freely assembled, shin-high “tossed wall.” These moss-tinged installations of boulders, jagged chunks and quadrilaterals crisscross miles of meadows, woods and roadways.  Connecticut’s hardy settlers built them from necessity, as frigid winters and the ensuing frost heaving lifted crops of ancient granite to the surface.  Our woods overflow with these and heftier “double walls,” but none would thwart a trespasser, much less a flying one.

A few times, as I tiptoed near, she swiveled with a contortionist’s ease to warily glance backward and reinforce our strict surveillance boundary.  Another day, finding her on a rare incubation holiday, I glimpsed her magnificent clutch. Five shining vessels, pointier than the norm to accommodate the species’ grand wings, filled her nest to capacity.

I never had great affection for waterfowl.  My early infatuation with Misty of Chincoteague’s famed ponies only swelled aloft the smooth-muscled beasts who guided my short-lived riding instruction. Other crushes – wild and domesticated,  puppies, cougars and briefly, charismatic, long-armed Orangutans – came and went.

There were childhood excursions to a local estate, where my brother and I met the residents armed with a sack of stale Pepperidge Farms, but I think I enjoyed the ritual, which allowed me to survey the expansive manse and envision the fancy life therein, more than the interactions. After enthusiastically feeding the rowdy Anatidae, who brashly circled and occasionally nipped our fingers, we headed to Dairy Queen for delicacies of our own.

It’s usually the dazzling, eccentric avians that claim my heart: gliding predators inspected through Dad’s binoculars at Hawk Mountain’s crest, wily cormorants playing hide and seek along Maine’s jagged coast or bright-white egrets roosting in evergreens, like Jurassic Christmas ornaments.

Just before Mother’s Day, Bob rushed in with a fitting announcement: several goslings pipped and were now nestled in Mom’s extravagant curves. Others followed suit and, before long, the plump relocated across the pond in a slow-moving transport of lemon fluff and towering ebony.  By then, a lush screen of oak, maple and irrepressible sassafras saplings curtained off my view, bringing my pilgrimage to an abrupt, but cheerful close. I pictured the family afloat on a fancier neighborhood water feature and, given my newly-acquired gos-pertise, felt sure they would return in seasons to come.

Thoughts of wild things and wild nests eventually migrated to the pervasive national conversation about border construction and to our well-partitioned lives.  Knowing my vantage point and life experiences dramatically shaped this encounter, I considered anew how these factors influence or impede our relationships with the ones beyond the divide. It was up-close visitation, mother to mother, that led me to embrace the invading gaggle as newcomers seeking shelter and to await the fledglings like an old family friend. A privacy fence would not have altered their story, but it would have changed my perception of it.

The colonists’ pragmatism and the environment conspired, centuries ago, to prepare us for an agreeable introduction.

Proximity doesn’t always magnify our affections. I delight at our chipmunks, who multiply despite their universal need to shriek while dashing before the very walking and wheeled threats they hope to elude, yet our copious squirrels and lonely coyote elicit no good will.

Rebecca Ridgway Ayars essay

Canadian Geese are courageous, organized and tenacious parents; their affection for partner and birthplace is as extraordinary as their legendary flight patterns. Prizing clean water and isolated breeding sites as humans favor safe neighborhoods with good schools, geese form strong family units, divorce rarely, care for the ill, and even mourn. Day-old goslings swim, but remain in their parents’ care for a year.

It’s amazing Branta canadensis  do all this and more. They lack a crow’s problem-solving and the macaw’s ability to discern left from right. It’s lowly pigeons, who congregate at museums, that distinguish Picasso from Monet.

I didn’t need to travel to their native land or scale a tossed border to finally discover the beautiful and strange ways of Canadian Geese. My backyard tale provides fresh inspiration for the terrifying, exciting empty-nest chapter that lies ahead. I will put a little more faith in unscheduled adventures and wander a little further in search of unobstructed views. When we venture past the barriers, beautiful, strange and surprising people come into clearer focus.

If we are determined to erect new walls, I say, let’s build them low and of ancient stone.

It’s been months since I first spotted my broody friend; her goslings are taking to the skies above, falling into a wondrous, but anonymous, formation. My days are full, yet I still pause at both wall and kitchen window, hoping for a visit.

Rebecca Ridgway Ayars essay

The boisterous, mealtime spectacle, guided by Mother with Father Goose at the rear, is one I won’t forget. Five wingless, spiky-blond bundles with too-big feet and inky eyes peck the ground non-stop, weaving and bobbing like folks leaving a bar well past last call. An incessant howl from within abruptly ended the last grazing to force a remarkably efficient retreat. I watched, wistfully, as the family slipped easily over granite to disappear, again, in our thicketed refuge.


Rebecca Ridgway Ayars built a career helping non-profit organizations and artists share their stories, but lately is sharing more of her own. She draws on a challenging childhood, an unexpected encounter with hereditary cancer and how the arts have saved her countless times, among other topics.  The Princeton grad and dancer at heart finds inspiration in small movements of grace, courage and faith.


Originally published on Medium, here.

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1 Comment on Of Tossed Walls and Broody Birds

  1. James Ridgway Jr // January 10, 2018 at 3:23 pm // Reply

    Beautiful telling of an event that often goes unnoticed…

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