Canals in the Oxford University Parks
Being in Oxford has reminded me of an interesting saga that I recall watching play out in the University Parks and in particular in the area affectionately known as Mesopotamia. I used to walk although the pathway that is bounded on both sides by canals, hence the name, and a regular feature of the canals was a gaggle of around 50 Canada Geese. Needless to say this gaggle made me feel at home and I liked to imagine that they would follow me for part of the journey. They actually did because they had long since learned to watch for free hand-outs of bread from passersby.
Now Canada Geese are quite interesting. They are well organized, with different geese taking turns on watch while the others eat and, when flying, they regularly switch leaders to share the workload. One of their more charming traits is that they will assign two healthy geese to stay with any goose that has become ill or injured and these care-givers will stay with that goose until it recovers or dies.
All these virtues did not, however, make the Canada Geese the lords of these particular waterways. This title went to the larger, more flashy and aggressive Swans. Any illusion one might have about the true nature of Swans is soon dispelled by regular contact. People who decide to feed the ducks from their punts on these canals soon discover which birds will take all the bread, whether it is volunteered or not. In fact, this is true throughout this particular ecosystem – the swans dominate the food harvesting process. That was until one day when a stranger came along.
This stranger was a monstrously large English Goose. At the time, I recall naming this particular animal the “Arnold Schwarzenegger of Geese”. In terms of size, it was easily twice the size of the largest Canadian Goose, its neck seemed to be thicker than its head, and, strangest of all, the end of its beak featured some form of digging appendage – a huge toe-nail of sorts. So there was no questioning the fact that this newcomer was the ugliest creature on webbed feet.
Not surprisingly the gaggle of Canada geese wanted nothing to do with this mutant goose however much this outcast wanted to join the team. For several weeks, this grey English goose followed behind the Canada Geese, seemingly having decided that they represented the closest thing to kin. It was, throughout, a spectacle of a homogeneous community spurning the outsider. To its enduring credit, and possibly why it earned its name, this English goose was simply too stubborn to give up and it continued to shadow it chosen clan.
Then one morning came along that stands out vividly. The gaggle of Canada geese were drifting along the water, as usual, except this time, right in the middle could be seen the monster English goose. Something had changed and it was not long before I discovered why. There was a group of swans enjoying some nutritious find when the new, augmented gaggle of geese rounded the bend in the canal. Whereas in the past, the geese would have kept their distance from the larger swans this time they picked up speed and headed directly for the swans. It turns out that this English goose, in addition to being ugly and awkward was also totally unstoppable. I can recall the image of this particular goose crashing into the swans like a bowling ball impacting a set of pins. A tremendous racket followed and lots of wings flapping but there was no overcoming the Arnold Schwarzenegger of Geese.
There is no way of telling how long the alliance lasted but what is sure is that for a period of time on the canals of the Oxford University Parks a hodgepodge gaggle of geese enjoyed complete dominance. To this day, I cite this story as an example of how strong diversity can be. In this case it was not merely a matter of looks but a fundamental diversification of inclinations and capabilities and the lesson applies as neatly to people as it does to our feathered friends.