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Tales: Why geese fly in formation and other trivia

January 03, 2002

To start the new year right I decided to clean my desk. I'm of the school that believes an empty desk is the sign of an empty mind, so using my unique filing system of cardboard beer flats for different subjects, I started cleaning and sorting on New Year's Day.

I soon discovered there was a full box of correspondence from different readers. Many of the letters and e-mails were questions from readers who wanted answers for problems they had, or questions that needed answering. Enclosed, are a few of them.

Keith from Holtville wrote: Dear Al, why do Canada geese fly in a "V" formation?

Well Keith, at first I thought the answer was pretty simple. I figured if they all flew in a straight line, directly behind each other, there would be many noses stuck up many rear ends when the goose in front decided to stop. Actually, they probably did it for awhile and that's where the term "goosed" came from.


After giving Keith my answer, I asked the experts and they had an entirely different idea. It seems that geese fly in formation so they can conserve energy.

The goose at the head of the "V" works harder than the rest of the flock as he or she breaks the airflow so the birds following can benefit from the reduction in wind resistance. Because it's so tiring, all the geese in the formation take a turn at flying in front. As they become tired, the goose in front will drop to the last position in the formation where the wind drag is the lowest and another goose will take over for awhile.

It's a misconception that the leader always flies at the head of the formation. The oldest and most mature goose calls the shots, using the sun and the stars at night to stay on course.

Have you ever noticed how a "V" changes shape, often looking more like a check mark, with one bird flying lead, two or three birds trailing on one side and the majority of birds strung out on the other?

This too is a strategy for dealing with wind. It usually means a crosswind is blowing — the short side of the formation is taking the brunt of the wind, while on the long side the birds are attempting to shield one another from it.

Speaking of geese, a reader from Seeley wrote: Dear Al, how can you tell a male Canada goose from a female Canada goose?

This was a tough question for me and again, it required help from bird experts since both the male and female Canada goose look exactly alike.

The answer was so simple I'm surprised I hadn't thought of it myself …. Wait until you see two geese mating. The one on top is usually the male.

Next is a question from Suzy in Burro Bend: Dear Al, for the past week buzzards have been circling our house and some are even sitting in the trees around the house. We have never had buzzards around our house before. Why are they here?

Dear Suzy, assuming all your loved ones are accounted for, I would guess you have a gas leak somewhere near your house.

Have you been using a lot of gas lately? The people that sell natural gas as well as bottled gas are smart. They add a scent to their gas that smells like rotting flesh. If they suspect a leak in their gas lines, they only have to drive the area and let the vultures guide them to the leak. You would think the union would say this was an unfair labor practice but so far they haven't caused a stink.

Bill from El Centro wrote: Dear Al, every year woodpeckers show up and peck away on our house. They are big birds and create unsightly craters in the side of our house. When they fly away their wings show flashes of orange.

Dear Bill: Your house is being invaded by a woodpecker called a flicker. They visit our area in the fall and winter. Some even stay year-round.

Flickers drum for the dual purposes of attracting a mate and declaring a territory. It's the equivalent of a songbird's mating call. Your house may have been chosen because it makes the ideal noise when he drums on it.

Flickers prefer soft, rotten wood to peck in because it has the highest chance of containing insects to feed on. If your house has redwood siding, it may be just the right softness for the flicker's liking. In other words, he's looking for food.

The easiest non-lethal method to get rid of flickers is to place a helium filled "scare" balloon near the spot he has been pecking. A picture of his mother-in-law on the balloon might work. If your local hardware store can't help you, try the Web site

They carry scare balloons as well as many other different types of products to scare or repel birds.

>> Outdoor Tales writer Al Kalin can be reached on the Internet at

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