The Story of Gosling Sandhill

A true but unlikely tale

Story and Photographs by William Rowan

Mother sandhill crane and adoted Canada gosling. How a Canada goose egg ended up in a sandhill crane nest in a Michigan park in 2019 remains unexplained, but when the egg was hatched, the bond between the mother crane and the adopted gosling was immediate and profound. 

No one knows how a Canada goose egg ended up in the late spring of 2019 in a sandhill crane’s nest in a marsh connected to Wildwing Lake at Kensington Metropark in Milford, Michigan—a 4,486-acre haven for wildlife and waterfowl. Perhaps a pair of Canada geese (Branta canadensis) had begun to lay a clutch in this ideal nest site and had been driven off by a pair of sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis) who claimed the nest for themselves. However it happened, when the egg hatched, the imprinting between gosling and mother crane was immediate and profound.

The crane pair also hatched one of their own. Although the mother crane nurtured both siblings, she devoted much of her attention to the gosling, allowing her own offspring to associate more closely with the father. “The Family,” as they were known in Michigan birding and wildlife communities, became a symbol to some of the love and devotion needed to be successful foster or adoptive parents.

Adopted Canada goose (Branta canadensis) and sandhill crane (Ardea canadensis) nestmate settle in for the night under the wings of the mother crane.

 Others saw the cranes’ willingness to accept the gosling as their own as a model of tolerance worthy of emulation. Of course, the bird watchers were anthropomorphizing, but resistance was futile. Individuals in the family were given names—Mother Crane, Father Crane, their biological offspring, Colt, and Gosling. To witness the parental care for the vulnerable Gosling was as inspiring as it was remarkable.

The family’s daily routine included a trek through the woods to the park’s golf course nearby, where they foraged until returning in the late afternoon to their nighttime nest. It was difficult to believe the short, plump, web-footed Gosling could keep pace with the nimble, long-legged Cranes, but the parents walked slowly and navigated around, rather than over, obstructions on the woodland floor, enabling Gosling to keep up. Nearby, adult Canada geese paused to watch.
When the family entered the marsh where their nest was located, Gosling’s “nature” emerged—swimming, bobbing, and washing without prompting from the parents. But “nurture” was also evident. With a beak ill-suited to the task, Gosling regularly dug into the ground alongside Mother Crane in search of roots and worms. And after Father Crane killed hatchlings in a nest of red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus), Gosling mimicked the Cranes, violently shaking a little corpse in its bill until the broken body fell apart to make consumption possible.

Father crane monitors two common snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina) that are mating but alarmingly near the family’s nest.

One evening, an immense snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina), measuring more than four feet from tip to tail, mounted an attack on the nest. Father Crane stood at the water’s edge, wings out-stretched menacingly, face hovering directly over the turtle’s head and jaws. The crane was determined to prevent an advance by repeatedly striking the reptile’s face. Mother Crane and the siblings crouched behind the father, looking oddly complacent. As darkness enveloped the standoff, observers eft with heavy hearts, knowing the nocturnal snapper had the advantage, because cranes sleep at night. But the next morning, the family was intact—the turtle could not penetrate the father’s defense.

The Crane’s diet of bugs and roots was healthy for both siblings, and Gosling supplemented the fare provided by its mother with grass, forest foliage, and marsh plants.As Gosling thrived, a guarded hope arose among observers that it might survive.

Gosling supplements its diet with woodland foliage, not normally on the sandhill crane menu.

Gosling eating a red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) nestling killed by father crane.

A photographer ensuring a safe crossing as the family returns to the marsh.

The presence of humans during the day made attacks by predators unlikely, and the parent’s ability to defend the nest was reassuring. A significant hazard was crossing a road every day to and from their foraging area. Photographers and other visitors, however, often served as crossing guards to ensure a safe passage.

 

 

 

As the weeks passed, Gosling took on the appearance of an adult Canada goose. There was a change in personality, too. Gosling became an aggressive protector of its family. When they exited the woods and walked the human trails near their nest, Gosling would often charge unsuspecting park visitors and bite their legs.

The family with the two young, now fledglings

Sandhill cranes and Canada geese intermingle freely in Michigan farm fields as migration approaches in the fall. What had begun as the only documented case of sandhill cranes adopting a bird from another genus could have taken on the appearance of a common, end-of-season association. But one day, shortly after the siblings began practicing to fly, Gosling failed to return to the nest with the family.

Gosling testing its developing wings

The parents had just begun bringing Colt and Gosling to an open area where they were observed practicing flying—short distances, wobbly flights. Gosling was later found lifeless on a stretch of matted-down tall grass with his body at the end of the matting, just below a large oak tree. There was no discernible evidence of external injury, attack by a predator, or being shot in this remote section of the golf course. Without a necropsy, his death is as inexplicable as his first appearance, encased in a shell sixty-three days earlier, in the nest of two sandhill cranes. He may have had catastrophic organ failure, or had a fatal crash while learning to fly.

Birders who observe Canada geese commented that goslings typically practice flying on water, where a crash is a splash. They also noted that in the initial stages, goslings can veer one way or the other because they have not yet learned to control flight direction. Sandhill cranes practice flying on land, where their long legs cushion their landing. A gosling does not have this advantage. The crane parents would not have known that practicing on land was more dangerous for Gosling than for Colt.

The fairytale story came to a Diary of Anne Frank ending, but, like Anne, Gosling and the Cranes left a legacy that won’t soon be forgotten. By the time Gosling died, thousands of Michigan birders and wildlife enthusiasts were reading reports of the family posted online daily, and many confessed to weeping over the loss. All had marveled as the parents modeled everything humans aspire to be—coura-geous, devoted, resourceful, determined, tender, and—most unexpected of all—accepting of one so different from them-selves. And all grieved—not just for Gosling, but for the parents, whose valiant effort came to a heartbreaking end.

Shortly after Gosling died, Patricia Ann Komjathy, a member of the Michigan bird-watching community, wrote the following poem (with a nod to Tom Petty):

Learning to fly on gosling wings, Coming down is the hardest thing. Rest in peace, little Gosling. You touched so many lives. And landed gently in our hearts.

--WR

 

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