The Last Migration: Part 2

“It was a time before times. Vancouver was a smaller place, but the world was bigger then. There were humans, but not so many as there are now. And the world was a different place – it was colder! Summers never got as hot or as dry as they do these days, and winters got much colder than you’ve ever seen!

“How cold could winters get? Well, think about the mountains. You all know Grouse Mountain, of course, but how many of you have been there? I tell you, to get from here to there on foot is just about impossible! Hardly anyone who doesn’t have a good pair of wings I venture has ever been to the top – but let me tell you, up there it gets COLD! Yes, even these days!

“There are mountains, believe it or not, whose peaks are even colder than that! Big mountains, higher than you can imagine, and on top, they’re covered with the source of all that cold – a fine white powder, soft and frozen, and we call it snow.

“Those mountains are the only places you’ll find snow nowadays, and then only at the very tops, and even then usually only for part of the year. But time was, or so my own Grandma told me, that near every other year we’d get about a foot and a half of it each winter. Just think – sitting in your perch by the park, and then you start dreaming of those frozen slush drinks people have. And when you wake up, your head is covered in white dust and you’re buried up to your neck in a drift of cold, white SNOW!

“Suffice it to say, bird-folk never took kindly to that, and geese-folk least of all. Oh, some of us smaller feather-folk were okay to tuck into a little tree-hole, or a burrow, and of course our fine furry friends without wings don’t have much of a choice either way, but for us big’uns, well, when the snow came, the feeding times went. And when the grass got all covered, well, it takes no genius to figure that eating’s gonna be hard.

“But you can’t wait until the snow’s falling from the sky and burying your dinner and chasing your human providers indoors to move on to, literally, greener pastures. So every fall, as cold weather started setting in, shorter days, longer nights, we all would get together and we’d pick a leader. Every different flock of geese, and ducks, and loons, and all kinds of birds, would pick one gal or fella to go up front and lead us on a migration.

“It was always a big event! And you’d think, everyone wants to be a leader, right? Wrong! Comes with lots of responsibilities, least it did. And my Da,’ he was the one got chosen for it. Didn’t know it then, but now we as remember it call it the last migration. And it was the first and only time I ever done so in my life.

By this point we were doing it out of habit more than anything else. Fall comes, you eat up in the disappearing days of summer, get nice and fat, ruffle up your feathers and make ready to fly for all you’re worth. Least that’s how it was, so I heard tell. Made it out to be a big deal, did my parents. But in their hearts even they knew, I think, that we weren’t doing too many more of these. Never, though, nobody figured it’d be the last one.

“And maybe that’s why they chose my Da.’ Because they knew he’d plenty of energy to lead and just enough experience to get it done, but just enough caution, too, to make it a leisurely trip. We took it easy, least they told me, easy as migrations go – went, I suppose, ‘cause they don’t anymore. We don’t anymore. But hoo-woot! What a trip!

“All together we gathered on this very patch and ruffled up our feathers, shook out our wings. Summertime was ending, fall was coming, winter’d be here soon. Still warm, but better safe than sorry said our elders. Even they knew it was over-cautiousness, getting like this. Prob’ly could’ve stayed here all winter, just like we do now, year like that. But we didn’t, and so’s I’m telling you this story, right?

“Anyway, Da’ takes position at the front and fluffs himself all big-like. You know, like he was showing for a mate. Only his mate was the open sky this time, not my Ma. ‘Course she was right behind him, always was ’til the day he died. And I was behind her, and ol’ Wonk – few of you as even remember ol’ Wonk, but he was a fellow! What a character! He was behind me, and we were the start of the right side of the V. And Squawk – she was tough! Took off with another flock one day, years ago when she found her mate, never saw her again. Respectable gal. She an’ hers made up the other side, left side, of that V. And when Da’ flapped his wings and took to the skies, we all flapped just as hard and we went flying after him.

“Now Da’ was never the slowest flyer, but he made sure to be careful this time. He’d been, couple times, once or twice with my Ma, so he knew the way. He took us over Kitsilano, high above a set of buildings that weren’t half so dense as you see now, but about as tall. We went over the Delta wetlands, over White Rock, over the big White Rock for which that town got its name, little one.

“We stopped there, had a munch. Everyone was a little tuckered! But then it was off again, off again, over the invisible line that keeps different sorts of humans separate from each other except with permission, over a place called America. Some of you’ve been there! Bird-folk all, of course. Let me tell you, humans – they grow ‘em big there! Not taller – not all of them – but wider, heavier, you could run a stampede of them and they’d near as level a forest. But they’re peaceful things, most part – docile, spend most of their time in their nests, hundreds of ‘em, thousands. Millions. You’ve got whole forest-sized areas, places bigger than Vancouver, bigger than all the cities here, all covered with nothing but the nests of American humans. And they make their own tall buildings – taller than anything you see here! Bigger too, wider, like the critters themselves I reckon.

“Anyhow, it was a big issue back then that migration was getting harder. Lots of the places we used to stop – fields, shores, forests, lakes, ponds, rivers, even some of the mountain areas – they’d been covered by these American humans. Now not like we get up here in Vancouver, or even anywhere else in the part of the Great White North we call Canada, but covered, completely covered – with houses far as you could see, and strange devices, machines, plants in straight rows as they don’t form without the touch of Man, farms they call ‘em. Makes for bad nesting, bad resting. Lights at all hours of the day and night – you can hardly see where you’re to land, and when you get there like as not a bunch of their young’uns’ll be making a big mess or some of their machines will be digging it up to build more of whatever they think is more important to put there than good honest grass and trees, water and soil. So the routes got trickier – we had to go around, sometimes, find new places other times, skip a few entirely. Worst was when there just wasn’t a place to go instead and everyone was tired – then, we’d have to make do where we were. It was hard on Da’, but no-one took it hard on him because we all knew and saw how challenging it was. Wasn’t one of us could do better, neither, and we all thought him a hero-goose just for doing as well as he did.

“First we crossed over into Washington State. Not so much different there than here, but it is different. You can tell. Just the feel of the place, the mood – it’s slower, and a little more on edge. It’s why we didn’t stay there so long – humans give us a bit of the jitters. Oh, and they aren’t like here in one more respect – some of ‘em as see you, point a long shining metal stick at you and then there’s a loud thunderclap, and next thing you know down you drop, dead. And they cook you up, and that’s the end of your story in this life. Not so much in the Wash, but it wakes you up proper – you ain’t in Vancouver no more.

“Still were a lot of our grounds left there, and you bet we made good use of them. Some of them, ‘specially one nice place by the river, so lovely I made my own little trip there myself when I had a few more seasons on me, little less dander in my fluff. What? You thought I just stayed here all my life after that migration? No, not like you pampered young’uns, everything you’ve ever needed or wanted is right here for you, and bless you for keeping safe, but there’s a big world out there you’re missing out on. Though way it was heading last time I was out, perhaps you’re all better off right where you are.

“So at that time, some of my elders – MY elders, yes, MY elders, time was I was a fledgeling! – started discussing. It’s getting hard, said they – spaces are smaller, food here is scarcer, the flyways aren’t as comfortable as they used to be. Lot of strange sights and sounds, more and more over the years, some folks were just scared. And there came a voice then, forgot who it was, mighta been Miss Creek, that said that some around here in these areas simply stayed the year, specially further south we went. And that sent everyone into a tizzy! Flutter of wings and a honking like you’ve never heard. Our flock’s always done it, said some. Never had a need not to, said others. Ancient tradition, said some more. Oughta risk it even if it does us in, said a few! That’s when we knew, it wasn’t going like it ought. And Da’, well he just excused himself and went to munch on watercress, and of course my Ma followed him. I stayed right there, had to listen to what the grownups were saying.

“Verdict was reached – we’d finish this migration, and then decide whether we’d do another. Everyone came to tell Da’ that he’d done a great job, and we were each of us happy to follow him right down to our wintering grounds as far south as he’d take us. And we’d stop where he stopped. And he told us, right there, that he meant to bring us down as far south as our kin ever goes – Mexico, Caribbean seashore. Was a few of us taken aback by that – ‘tisn’t where our flock usually went, though I got the idea we had done it, and it wasn’t unreasonable. But Da’ had something to prove, and wasn’t one of us going to check him now, not after we’d put the responsibility on him.

“So along we went! Down through Washington, past the tip of Oregon. Where they have some vineyards as cover whole acres! Down, down – and we rested again in Idaho. Lot of nice places there! Big timber community, not so many rivers though. Complaints about terrain, few even grumbled about how much nicer it was in Vancouver, but our elders put a stop to it with a look, and all of us knew better than to let it reach Da’s ears, even if we knew that he knew what we were muttering about. That’s where we had the near miss.

“Morning came, and Ma and I were picking grass and daisies up by a big ol’ rock. Seemed so quiet, so safe, so idyllic, it was a beautiful day outside… so the thunderclap we heard came right out of the blue. And we didn’t need to look about to see that it was time for us to go. Up, up we went, big cloud and cluster, no formation – just get out, get out, get out. And as we did I spied a couple fellows, Men, crouched behind some bushes with one of the shiny sticks. And one of them was scolding the other, something like ‘Darn it, Joe, ya missed!’ Don’t think I’ve ever been since as glad to hear a human get mad as that. And we took quick stock, look around – sure enough, everyone was there, nobody left behind, not so much as one straggler. We all took our places, and Da’ put his doubts aside to flap his way right up to his proper place up front as he took us far, far from those hunters.”

Grandma Hoot’s story was getting serious. She’d never spoken of things like this. And few of these animals had ever considered such things – sure, they knew that humans weren’t the safest creatures to be around, especially near one of their cities, but the folks here were always so docile, friendly even. The thought that any of them could do damage to an animal by anything other than accident was still somewhat perplexing to them. The little gosling stared at Grandma Hoot with newfound admiration, and all his brothers and sisters did the same as she kept on with her story.

“Souther and Souther went we; and many a strange and wonderful sight did we see. Down past Utah and Salt Lake City, and the Dry Lands of the Desert. Many of the towns we used to see had been abandoned – nature left to take hers back – but new development was a-coming, and at human hands. Fact was, inhospitable as they were, still they remained the best we had on our way. So there we stopped, and nibbled at the sparse grasses, and tried to ignore how unreasonably cold it got by night for somewhere that was so hot in the day. You’d never think so, but that’s how the desert is.

“Up came the sun and out came our wings – it was time to move on. Fact is, none of us had ever liked the desert, and it was a lot worse having to put up with it in such circumstances. We’d had such a time of it already, and that big scare with the gunshot had really ruffled a few feathers, to say the least. Never did Old Wonk have such a close call, we found out – turns out it was he the hunter galoot had shot at, and though he played it off with his usual humour we could all sense a sort of enervation about him, like he was trying to keep something in his mind at bay. And we all noticed the shaking of his feathers, and even though he tried to play it off as the cold we all knew better.

“My Da was the one who set him straight. He took Old Wonk to the side, and gave him a good talking to. No, not a scolding – just the opposite in fact, more like encouragement. He let Old Wonk know that none of it was his fault, nobody held anything against him, and somehow the Great Sun in the Sky and the Spirits of the Winds had seen fit to spare his life, save it even. Wasn’t right, to let fear overcome your senses and to bring you away from the fact of your survival. Waste of the gift of life – better to move on, figuratively and literally. We had quite the migration still ahead of us – and a big decision to make at the end of it.

“I don’t know exactly all he told the old fella, but when day broke Ol’ Wonk’s feathers were the steadiest of all of us. Well, except for Miss Creek, but she was always a sturdy gal, don’t think she shook even in the coldest night. And Da took his place right at the front and led us up into the pure sky. And we flew – we flew with renewed purpose, renewed vigour, all flapping and soaring, banking and diving, moving and migrating as one, for what we were all sure by now was our final big trip together.

“Da took us down through through Arizona, and if you thought it couldn’t get drier than it was in Utah, well you’d be in for a rough surprise. Leastways it was for me – never had such slim, dry pickin’s for dinner in my life. You all want to imagine it, think of a barren expanse with but the slimmest slivers of vegetation, all of it near bone-dry, like the crackers and chips that the humans sometimes feed us here, but it grows naturally from the ground. We all weren’t too pleased by what we found – but we had stayed true to the airways our ancestors followed across the great sky, and we knew my Da’ had led us true. He had the clarity of thought to take us down by the Salt River delta, where the eatin’s were wetter, better, thicker. We munched up there; the last leg was a long haul, and each of us wanted to make it in as few stops as possible. And it’s a good thing we did.

“Now, everyone who’s ever flown by the Greater Vancouver Airport knows all about what an airplane is. You all know why they’re dangerous, where they take off, where they land. It’s one of the humans’ more curious inventions – who on earth would ever need a bird that big, made all out of metal, is anyone’s guess, especially given that they’ve so many modes of transport already. I mean, look at all their metal cars, their rolling bike frames, the rumbling trains that sometimes trundle the tracks on the North Shore, past that Granary where the pigeons roost, the big ships that are always coming and going from harbour in English Bay. Man is absolutely spoiled for machine creatures to carry him wheresoever he please, instead of his own two feet, and he’s had to come up with things to take him through the air.

“Well, you all know that lately he’s taken to a sort of machine that is too small even to carry him, but which he insists nonetheless on crafting, releasing, and sending to fly about in our skies. Drones, they’re called, and individually they’re fairly harmless – slower than a sick bird, clumsier than a bat in daylight, all the grace and maneuverability of a witless horsefly. But when they cluster, oh, you all had best watch for their small buzzing wings. Like a hundred flies is each one, and all humming, buzzing, packing the sting of so many angry bees.

“What we saw as we skirted the air above the border between Arizona and the part of the human territory called Mexico was a cluster of drones – hundreds and hundreds of them, spread apart, staggered, but each patrolling, and each scanning the area for as far as your eye could see. And high above – higher than any bird can fly – we saw some of their jets. Not the kind as lift off from places like our Airport, no; this was one of their secret, their private jets. We don’t know who they are, what they do, why they leave those funny white trails in the air when nothing else that flies ever does. But there were a few of them, weaving their little white way across the sky. And it didn’t feel good.

“One of the drones moved up after us – Da’ banked to take us away, and I’ll tell you it’s a good thing he did, because there was what felt like the surge just before a lightning storm, though the day was clear and there wasn’t a trace of cloud in the sky save for what the jets above left. Like the air itself was readying for a thunder strike. And the little machine, it gave out a high-pitched whine and – it sped up! I don’t know how or why it found it in itself to do that, but we all flapped for all we were worth! And we just kept going – geese were panicking, and that’s when Da’ and old Wonk and Miss Creek, well I heard from them “Keep formation!” And we did; and we kept flying. We staggered, but we all kept up! And we flew, and we flew, and we flew! And gradually, we began to outstrip that nasty little device. I don’t know when it gave up the chase – if it gave it up – but none of us looked back.

“We kept going, and thankfully things weren’t too bad. We passed a long way, and the going was thankfully easy – the desert below provided plenty of heat thermals to lift our wings, and the cities over which we passed boosted that. Eventually, we stopped by the coast, of a Great Ocean on the opposite side of our land from the Pacific we all so love! That part of it, humans call the Gulf of Mexico. And nearby a city called Tampico, just by a sheltered bay, we finally reached our ancestral Wintering Grounds. You’ve all never seen such a place! The sun shone hot all day, but there was food and drink aplenty. Golden is the land down in Mexico – the Sun in the Sky bakes it until the Earth itself catches his colour. But my, are the humans noisy down in there. And so many are they! Vancouver is as many humans as you’re all likely to see; in Mexico, there are many more, in a much smaller space, and they are friendly enough but nowhere near as generous. How lucky, how very lucky you all are, animals and bird-folk one and all, especially you, little ones!

“Goodly little things that you are, know that I reach the third-way mark in my tale. For it was here that we stopped to rest, and here that we began to discuss in depth how we might best proceed. And here shall I stop too, and meditate on the life I have lived and the changes in the world, and how I’ve told my story. More is there to hear, so I invite you all to return tomorrow, when the Sun in the Sky is in his same place as now, to hear the rest.” And Grandma Hoot retired to her hollow, curled up her neck, sank her head into her feathers and was fast asleep.