With the first hint of spring in the bayous of Texas and Louisiana this year, the world's largest concentration of blue and snow geese took off on its annual migration. Southwest Iowa—an 800-mile hop along the Missouri River—was one of the first stops. Here there was plenty of food and water, and the birds rested, waiting for winter to recede farther north before flying another 1,800 miles to their nesting grounds on Baffin Island in the Arctic.
Many impatient geese reached Iowa a week or more ahead of their usual arrival. But winter had just been playing dead. Heavy snows blew down from the north, covering their grazing land, and for weeks the geese outflew the weather back and forth across the Iowa-Missouri border. Meanwhile, more geese kept flying out of the south, and as the storms abated many Iowans said there had never been more geese in the state at one time. And no place had more than shallow, 500-acre Forney Lake near Thurman (opposite and preceding pages).
Forney is a backwater slough near the Missouri River, formed years ago when the Big Mo changed its course. Ringed by marsh, it is a safe refuge for the geese, which require water anyway for proper digestion. Nearby are many thousand acres of prime cornfields where the geese feed on corn missed in the fall harvest and thereby help the farmers. Crops are rotated in these fields, and corn eaten by the geese will not sprout among the soybeans.
For days the birds swarmed in from the south, blue and snow geese together, the blues like ants half a mile high against the cottony clouds, and when the snows began descending thousands of feet to the water it was as though someone had emptied a planeload of white handbills that glided and dipped and glinted in the sun. Soon there was little water visible on the lake, and Iowa conservation men estimated upwards of 500,000 geese were there. From even half a mile away the gabbling of 500 acres of geese sounded like a Yankee Stadium full of bickering old ladies.
May 17, 1970
Troops of Boy Scouts were on hand to earn something called the Brother Goose award. Watch the geese, camp out, and you've got it. One troop, however, was not apprised of the camping requirement and rented rooms at the Tall Corn Motel in nearby Shenandoah, Iowa. "O.K., so we'll tell 'em we slept in the tall corn," their leader said jokingly. The geese had an appreciative audience. Many families drove two and three hundred miles to Forney Lake, a migration as irresistible in its way as that of the geese themselves. "What makes me watch them each year?" one viewer said. "I don't know, you tell me." Perhaps the answer is southwest Iowa itself, a land of dry creekbeds and flat, treeless horizons, where the drama of great natural beauty is hardly common.
The first act each day occurred at dawn, breakfasttime for the geese. In the pink light one could see them getting restless, gabbling at each other, milling around like socialites at a gigantic cocktail party. Suddenly, as if the entire flock were directed by a single brain, they would begin peeling off the water until it seemed the sky could hold no more. Still they rose, thick, sardine-tight swarms, silhouetted against the sunrise. Some observers, present for their first migration, wondered why the cries sounded so familiar. One found the answer: those Saturday matinees long ago—with the Indians surrounding the covered wagons, their war whoops the same as the cries of hungry geese.
When the geese had gone to the cornfields, talk often turned to hunting. Last year the Iowa goose season ran from Oct. 4 to Dec. 12, and there has not been a spring season in more than 40 years. Iowa geese have little cause for fear in the spring, but even when resting on the water they seemed in a state of near hysteria. They gabbled constantly, and one wondered what they could be saying. Something like "Be alert, there is danger all around," perhaps? Danger must have been the main topic of conversation because whenever the tempo and pitch of the chatter increased suddenly, huge clumps of geese left the water moments later. Airplanes seemed to be their biggest worry. Before a man could hear one, the geese would be off in a total frenzy.
The buzzing of airplane engines drove them wild, but there was no way they could escape it and no pattern to their attempts. Up and down the lake they stormed, tornadoes of life, hundreds of thousands of whirling, diving birds fleeing a tormentor that few of them ever even saw, first in perfect harmony, like a school of minnows, and then, suddenly, every goose for himself. High in the air the flocks would break apart, falling and fluttering—a salt-and-pepper blizzard of dark and light birds. This would happen—with varying degrees of shrill alarm—throughout the day; a plane would do it, but a car horn, a train whistle, even a barking dog was enough to set them off.
Gradually the weather improved, and the geese began stirring to different forces. More of them were flying in pairs now. They rose from the lake in tight packs looking like one of those glass balls that snow inside when they are shaken. Small flocks would leave suddenly and fly north, and people said that these were scouts, and that if they didn't return it meant that the weather was good farther north and the others would soon follow. One old man, who had watched the geese for years, knew this too, and one afternoon he left his plow and went to the lake to say good-by. A little girl stood watching the geese, wide-eyed and silent. "Mommy, mommy," she finally said, "they look like stars." Her brother was equally impressed. "Boy," he said, "I wish I could fly like that." The old man just looked at them and smiled.