Thank you for honking

While wandering the empty streets on my daily cabin-fever-preventing self-isolation stroll, I heard a sound I hadn’t come across in months.

Honking. High above me was an arrow formation of Canada geese, on their journey back north as winter receded and spring tried to edge its way in. And as I heard those monotonous, guttural honks, I found myself feeling, despite myself, hopeful. No, really.

I found myself in one of those moments when something’s absence is only noticed once it returns. In this case, birdsong (or birdnoise?) was something I only then realised I hadn’t heard since December.

A gaggle of geese outside the Canadian War Museum last summer.

This was my first winter in which snow stayed on the ground and the temperature stayed below zero for most of the time, so the idea of going months without hearing a single chirp, tweet, or, yes, honk, was a new concept. 

Something people don’t tell you about snowy weather is how quiet it gets. The snow absorbs the sound, so that even the engines of noisy buses roaring past can be dulled.

But the noise of the natural world tends to disappear, too. Apart from the soft pitter-patter of falling snow, or the crunch as ice collided on the Ottawa River, there was little noise outside the artificial as our suburban wildlife retreated south or inside. 

Our only reminder of the warmer months came from the chubby squirrels daring to run through the snow to forage for food outside our window.

The dulled sound of the snow brings its own peace and beauty, but more than the changed landscape and the bitter cold, it illustrated how far I was from the country I’d grown up in.

Canada geese on a baseball field at Vanier.

I realised, as those geese flew overhead, that one of the things I had missed most about Australia was the abundance of birdlife. The chirping of the lorikeets, the the mimicking of the lyrebird, and even, somehow, the obnoxious screeching of cockatoos, were parts of life I missed more than the mild weather, the sandy beaches, and the forests of eucalyptus.

Beautiful as the birdlife is in Canada, their songs just don’t have the same effect. And yet, there can be some parallels.

Canada geese, for example, have the same terrible PR that magpies receive in Australia. They’re territorial, cranky, and won’t hesitate to attack if you get too close. 

Path closure enforcement in Gatineau last summer.

But they don’t have magpies’ beautiful warbling, left only with their far less appealing honking to communicate, or to warn you. They’re also bigger and tend to hang out in larger groups; the street gang equivalent of magpies’ assassins.

And so, why did they leave me feeling hopeful? I’m not entirely sure, but the presence of their arrow formation overhead brought back some sense of normalcy. Even as this nightmare unfolded across the world, winter was becoming spring and the natural world was continuing on its merry way. Just like winter, this too shall pass.

So, thank you, Canada geese. You’ve brought a little bit of hope to a time when sickness is rampant, isolation from loved ones is a necessary evil, and I’ve found myself writing 500 words trying to add meaning to some birds flying over an empty street.

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