Every year, on the last Sunday in May, a portion of Calgary’s 4th Street closes to traffic for the annual Lilac Festival. It’s a 100,000 person event held with the sole purpose of flooding the area with enough suburbanites that it will be impossible for local residents to get anywhere near a coffee shop.
If you live nearby, your options are simple. You can flee early and find refuge, perhaps in one of the shopping malls where you’d likely find that roaming horde. Or, you can hide out at home, enjoying live music from the safety of your own balcony or patio.
So that’s where I was that Sunday in 2014—on my patio—when some unexpected guests dropped in.
Sometimes a big project just falls in your lap
My patio steps up onto a grassy terrace that runs the length of the building. It’s an eight foot drop from the grass to the alley below, and the outer edge is topped by another five feet of wrought iron fence. With just enough sun to enjoy the weather, and just enough shade to evade screen glare, it’s a fine home office. Most days.
I could hear a calypso band tuning their instruments, a block west. From the east, came a short, sharp honk. Then another, and another. Five in all. A few minutes later, I looked up to see a family of six geese strolling single file, tallest to smallest, along the iron fence.
Taking a gander at the gander, I guessed he was at least 15 lbs of bird (or 6.8 kg if you were cooking him on Canadian Thanksgiving). His lady friend was only slightly smaller and the four goslings that toddled after them were each just a handful of grey fluff. None of them were wearing scorpion jackets.
The feathery sextet continued marching, out of sight. Five minutes later they returned, headed the other direction. Together they marched the terrace perimeter for the next three hours, while festival goers stopped in the alley to gawk.
Sometimes you don’t have the right tools
Weeks earlier, an upstairs neighbour had mentioned a pair of geese nesting on her fourth floor balcony. The sharp honks I’d heard had been the goslings pushed from that nest, falling four storeys, and landing on the terrace. The parents had followed, expecting to lead their feathery brood to the river. But there’s only one way to exit the terrace: at the far end, and even that was too high for the goslings to climb over.
And so they marched. At the top of the fourth hour, the gander flew away. At the bottom of the fourth, the goose flew away. The goslings kept marching around and around.
I reacted how any seasoned Albertan would when a bear or a skunk or a deer does something unusual:
Say out loud, “This is someone else’s problem.”
Call the Fish & Wildlife office.
I explained the situation. ‘Four abandoned goslings on a residential property’, ‘please send someone over’, and ‘thank-you.’ The woman on the other end of the line replied, ‘We don’t send personnel to residences’, ‘you’re going to have to deal with this yourself’, and ‘sorry.’
“You’re going to need a box, a blanket, and a broom.”
“Use the blanket to interrupt the parents’ line of sight. Put the goslings in the box and get them to ground level.”
“Sounds easy. What’s the broom for?”
“Self-defence, in case the parents attack you.”
Sometimes you don’t have the right team
I emptied an old file box and borrowed a blanket from my dog. The only broom I had was a red plastic number that, to my knowledge, had never been tested in bird combat.
Stepping back out onto the patio, I saw my neighbour Colin standing on the terrace, supervising the goslings.
“Their parents left,“ he said.
“I saw. I just spoke to Fish & Wildlife and…”
“I guess we’re going to have to raise them now.”
“No, that’s not what…”
“I’ve been standing here for a while. I think they’ve accepted me as their guardian.”
Colin was well-known in the building. A short order cook who often passed out homemade business cards with the self-appointed title VP Strategic Operations. Of nothing in particular. When the neighbourhood flooded in 2013 and the building was evacuated, Colin stayed behind to patrol the halls wearing night vision goggles and a makeshift uniform.
I explained to him what I’d been told on the phone. He shook his head. Somewhere in his mind, he might have been imagining long bike rides along the river pathways, four small geese flying in formation behind him. I explained that it would be much easier to gather the goslings while the parents were away. He negotiated for an extra hour with the goslings, before he would help.
I retired to my patio to wait. Ten minutes later, the parents returned.
Sometimes things don’t go according to plan.
“Do you want the blanket or the box?” I asked, holding both up.
“What’s the broom for?”
“Don’t worry about the broom.”
The geese were still marching. Around and around.
I showed Colin how to hold the blanket, arms stretched wide to block me from view. We followed the geese to the end of the terrace furthest from the exit. When they reached the fence and turned south, Colin stepped in front of the parents and blocked their view with the blanket.
I lunged forward and grabbed at the goslings. My fingers passed through downy fluff and came up empty. The goslings erupted in squeaks and fled in every direction. On my second grab, I scooped the slowest gosling into the file box and closed the lid.
The air filled with wingbeats and the gander’s shadow passed over us. I dropped the broom, hugged the box, and sprinted to the exit.
Sometimes it’s a mad dash to finish
The grass terrace is about 50m from end to end. I covered the distance in slow-motion seconds. On the way, I glanced up and saw the gander angling upwards to perch on the building’s roof. I glanced down and saw the body of a fifth gosling who hadn’t survived the fall, laying crumpled in the grass.
At the end, I jumped a low wall, down some stairs, and crossed to the far side of the alley.
The gander loomed, five storeys up. The goose was running and the goslings followed.
“Eeee! Do you have one of them in the box? Can I see, can I see?”
She was a 20-year old, bright eyed festival-goer and she was oblivious to the bird that was about to launch itself at us like a flying cannonball.
I took the lid off the box, showed her the gosling, and tipped it out onto the asphalt.
And sometimes, if you’re persistent, everything works out
The gander swooped down. The goose fluttered over the low wall. They converged on the gosling and after a quick inspection, the trio marched off down the alley. I caught up to them a few minutes later, cupped hands overflowing with the three remaining goslings, and deposited them at the back of the convoy.
Back at the building, Colin had dug a small grave for the fifth gosling using a spatula from somebody’s barbecue. He patted the dirt, folded the sod back down, and stood.
“Do you want to say a few words?“ he asked.
”We hardly knew you, Lil’ Anthony Edwards.”
“Because of Top Gun, Colin. Because of Top Gun.”
Illustration by Taylor Bryn Hultquist