Geese are multi-talented birds.

They are forthright, assertive, occasionally downright cranky globetrotters with an opinion on everything. They are excellent at hanging around farms being bouncers and hissing a lot. They can be excellent guard-birds.

And on at least one occasion, it seems, film stars.

Many will remember the 1991 film Sneakers: a hi-tech story of a babel box which will decode any encryption system on the planet. Robert Redford plays the leader of a team of security specialists whose job it is to test security for top companies.

They get hold of the box – but Redford’s character is immediately kidnapped and taken to an unknown location to discuss himself and the box with the baddies. Hours later, incriminated for a twenty year old crime and dumped back in the city minus the box, he must find his way back to the mystery location if he is to clear his name.

There is a wonderful clip where his team realises its only evidence is aural. What Redford’s character heard, as he was transported blindfold in the boot of a strange car, could help retrieve the box. Painstakingly, they identify each sound on the journey until they come against one perplexing one: a cocktail party.

This is so incongruous it stops the team in its tracks. What could a car with a kidnap victim in the boot possibly be doing driving through the centre of a cocktail party?

The answer, of course, is that it is a goose farm. The sound of geese en masse seems for all the world like the hubbub of a really successful soiree packed with beautiful people.

The makers of the film shipped in 1000 thespian geese to get just the right effect, it seems.

Wild geese have incredible kudos here in England, because they are heralds of the seasons. We watch wistfully in October as they form tight arrows: one at the front, two in formation behind, and two behind them: and so on in a perfect sky-convoy.

Equally their return fills us with hope. When the arrows point inwards towards the British Isles, the Spring is here, and we bid goodbye to the long dark winter nights.

The V shape is so distinctive: and it fell to a team of French scientists to work out precisely why this is. In quite singular experiments, they managed to track down some more thespian birds: great white pelicans which had been trained to fly behind an aeroplane as part of a feature film.

It only remained to strap heart monitors to the winged wonders,  and Dr Henri Weimerskirch and his team, from Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Villiers en Bois, were ready for the off.

The results were startling. When the birds flew together, their heart rates went down. Moreover, they were able to glide more often, taking much needed rests.

They fly in formation to save energy,” team leader Henri Weimerskirch told the BBC. “It’s not because they are using the upward airstream of their neighbour, it is because they are able to glide more often.”

Thus, they are being bandied about in any management theory worth its salt. Here is an illustration of how working together saves energy and allows us to soar even further than we dreamed we could.

Under the banner of the goose a group of human beings did just that, under circumstances of considerable adversity; almost 150 years ago.

In October 1867, a ship left Portsmouth on the last ever voyage of its kind. It had been chartered by Luscombe of London to carry convicts to Australia. No ship would ever do that job again.

Its passengers were far from conventional: Fenians, or Irish Nationalists.

A literary lot, these Irishmen. Nothing could suppress the creativity in their ranks. There were journallers who went on to publish their recollections of the voyage: and for the edification of the passengers seven editions of a newspaper were produced.

It was called The Wild Goose.

The title is said to be a reference to Wild Geese: Irish soldiers who were part of a tradition, leaving Ireland to fight in Europe since the 16th Century. (The same root fuelled the title of the film of the same name, about mercenaries in Africa).

It is packed with a cornucopia of entertainment:songs, stories, poems, articles, and advice. Written by hand, it was produced mostly by three main contributors: John Flood, John Boyle O’Reilly and John Casey.

As one would expect, some of the humour is the dryest of clever prose:

“This great continent of the south, having been discovered by some Dutch skipper and his crew, somewhere between the 1st and 9th centuries of the Christian era, was, in consequence taken possession of by the government of Great Britain, in accordance with that just and equitable maxim, “What’s yours is mine; what’s mine is my own.

“That magnanimous government in the kindly exuberance of their feelings, have placed a large portion of that immense tract of country called Australia at our disposal. Generously defraying all expenses incurred on our way to it, and providing retreats for us there to secure us from the inclemency of the seasons…”

The seven editions now rest in the State Library of New South Wales, and it is all I can do not to scrape together the air fare and charge off to read more.

Geese, these noisy, ingenious wild things, are such symbols for us humans. Even their glib cocktail party is an arrow to freedom, it seems:  they are bandied about our management theory as the perfect team workers. They represent the free fighting spirits who wandered far and wide; and they symbolised the camaraderie of a group of men imprisoned and taken across to the other side of the world.

What deeply accomplished birds they are.


25 thoughts on “Honk

  1. Wonderful, Kate. First off, I loved Sneakers, but, forgot about the geese. Thanks for the reminder. . . and on we go with the geese. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see these copies of The Wild Goose?

    In these parts, geese have actually become somewhat of an annoyance. They no longer migrate, do to climate changes, I suppose, and all the water they can find in industrial parks. We have a gaggle that live around here and I actually have a post sitting in draft form I should pull out one day soon.

    1. Oh, I look forward to reading that, Penny. they leave us for the long Winter months and presumably become sitting tenants over there…and yes, I would give all the tea in China to read the copies of the Wild Goose. I wonder if they’ll ever get round to creating an electronic facsimile?

  2. There is a big problem with geese and ducks here as the majority of them have stopped flying in their formations in preference for hanging around into the dead of winter. There are signs every where telling people not to feed them. But it is hard to resist when it is thirty below and they are all huddled together in the one spot of water left on the lake. This is all human caused, of course. But I don’t know if there is a way to fix it at this point.

    Poor geese.

    1. And poor you! They are pushy birds with rather more attitude than most, and when hungry I wouldn’t think they are backward in coming forward. I wonder how Shiva handles them.

      1. Birds have cryptochromes. So, now that that’s established let’s move on–what? You don’t know what the hell a cryptochrome is? Actually, you’re in good company there. And really, the whole story is worthy of a master’s thesis. Suffice to say, birds have little chemicals in some of their cells that work just like teeny compasses and allow the birds to see the earth’s magnetic field. And I don’t mean a figurative “see” either, I mean they actually see it.


      2. I wish I had cryptochromes. Turn me around three times and I’m lost being a major problem in my life.

  3. Hi Kate……….
    Do you know that when geese fly in v formation, the leader only is the leader for a minute or so. Then he leaves the front of the v and drifts backward along the outside of the v until he is at the rear of one arm of the v.
    That way he only puts up with the hard part of the flight for short periods. Another way of resting during the long migration flights.

    I long to hear the cry of the returning geese! Not long now, I guess.

    Love Dad

  4. This is fascinating. When I lived in the country and spent more time outside, I sometimes saw wild geese overhead.

    I have more experience of domestic geese. I used to go to a restaurant at a little water park where geese had the run of the grounds. Diners could sit and watch a toddler toddle toward a goose and then watch the toddler reverse and flee from the goose. Quite amusing if it wasn’t your toddler.

  5. There is indeed quite a mystique around these critters. I ran across this quote from http://chasethegoose.com/ not too long ago:
    “Celtic Christians had a name for the Holy Spirit–An Geadh-Glas, or ‘the Wild Goose.’ The name hints at mystery. Much like a wild goose, the Spirit of God cannot be tracked or tamed. An element of danger, an air of unpredictability surround Him. And while the name may sound a little sacrilegious, I cannot think of a better description of what it’s like to follow the Spirit through life. I think the Celtic Christians were on to something…”

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