Some Notes on Ornithology

(or: How I went on the Ignite Weekend Away and Came Home Without a Bible

Wild Geese

Migrating geese come to Ireland for the winter, because it is warmer than the winter in Greenland and Siberia. They do not breed here, although there are resident populations of some wild species that do. Some geese fly up to 70km/hr, and travel around 6,000 km a year in migration.



At least five species are found here: Greenland White-fronted geese, Brent geese, Pink-footed geese, Greylag geese, Barnacle geese.

The internet tells the casual enquirer that these types of geese look different. Many of them fly in the characteristic ‘skein’ or ‘v’ formation, but not all do. They live in very different-sized gaggles[1], ranging from hundreds to smaller gaggles of around 15. They live in different areas: freshwater, coastal, farmland, deserted islands, wetlands, and they eat different foods: roots, grass, grain, oats, shoots, tubers, leaves. Some geese are territorial when nesting, chasing other geese and large birds away from the nesting site, but becoming sociable again when the chicks have hatched (presumably that’s resident ones). Geese are known for their vigilance, and have been kept as guards. They honk, only that isn’t a good description of the evocative noise that you hear overhead, when they are setting out on their 3,000-km journey to the breeding grounds of the north.[2]

Wild geese are different but the same.

Wild geese are symbolic, as we found out this weekend.

Once upon a time, there was an older sister. She was a reasonable older sister. She did the dishes most mornings, she was handy with the hoover, she usually replied to work messages quickly, she had a timer on her Facebook app, and she had a vague grasp of how the bible is put together.

Don’t ask about her cooking.

Quite often, though, she got bored with being reasonable. (Bored means ‘there’s another plan in your head from what’s happening right now’.[3]) So she also did other things, the kind that provide variety and excitement and inspiration and made her happy. Younger sister kind of things. (Though it was usually the elder sister that had to organise them.)

Basically, she was pretty medium, except the cooking. 

She went on a weekend away with her church.

Wild geese were seen by the Celtic Church as a symbol of the Holy Spirit.

Why the Celtic church? Why geese, the harbingers of winter, not swallows, the heralds of summer?

The internet doesn’t really help with the first question. It probably needs time and books. The second, though, produces interesting results. Wild geese are mysterious.

So mysterious, no-one knew where they came from. Because the nests of Barnacle geese were never seen, it was once thought that they hatched from goose barnacles attached to ships at sea. This meant they were acceptable to eat on Fridays during Lent, because they were not ‘born of the flesh’.

Wild geese are exciting. They travel over our horizons. They come with the unsettling weather of autumn and stay for the turbulence and storms of winter. They are loud, and brave, and beyond our ken.

This particular weekend away was much-needed. The older sister was tired from being busy. Nothing exciting, but a break was needed.

She learned important things, about older and younger siblings and the nature of God, about rebalancing (or repenting?) the dichotomy of responsibility and responsiveness. She learned her Bible was tactilely unpleasant and was putting her off reading it. She learned again about welcoming everyone, whether they were the same or different.

She wondered how to define ‘the same’ and ‘different’.

She thought about new directions and future paths.

She did no cooking at all.

From a blog by Kathy Schiffer:

A wild goose will attack if it feels threatened. It’s wild and untamed. In the same way, the Celtic believers in the British Isles believed that the Holy Spirit is unpredictable, upsetting the status quo and leading people toward a new adventure with God…

On the one hand, the Holy Spirit is gentle as a dove — he can come silently, planting the seeds of wisdom in our hearts. On the other hand, the Holy Spirit is sometimes rambunctious as a goose — wresting us from our sedentary ways, disturbing the status quo, injecting the fire of God’s love.[4]

Mostly, the older/(getting younger) sister learned about geese. She thought a lot about geese. She thought: wild geese are different types of birds. She wondered what made people describe them as one symbolic whole.

Maybe there are some defining characteristics, common to the different species.

She thought: within goose communities, do all geese have the same role? Are they equally gifted at each? Do they all take turns at it? There must be the sentinels, the ones who warn of danger. There will be carers. There must be navigators. There will be those who organise social structures. There will be weaker geese, who need protection. Some will build the nest, some will guard it.

She wondered: are there those who are inspired to move on, to try harder, to fly further and higher? Are there some who help the others do it too?

She wondered: do all geese really take a turn at the front of the ‘v’, the nose of the skein?

She noted: geese do not cook.

There is a brilliant post by Pete Greig on the Ignite Facebook Group. From it:

A mark of those born of the Holy Spirit, according to Jesus, is spontaneity; the wildness of wind.

Perhaps this is why Celtic traditions represent the Spirit as a wild goose instead of a dove

Where, we must ask, are those in our day born of the Spirit who will rise up on eagles wings, blowing wherever He pleases, going wherever he carries them, showing the world a wilder and more wonderful way to be fully alive?’[5]

The younger sister thought: if geese were people, and a gaggle was a church, you’d need the ones who could speak. You’d need the leaders, the inspirers, the researchers. You’d need the ones who argue, the pedantic kind who like accuracy. You’d need the demonstrative types, you’d need the ones who ask the questions. You’d need the people who go far away and then return. You’d need the ones with families and the ones with none, the ones with pegs and the ones with headphones, the ones with well-thumbed bibles, the attractive and the ordinary, the learned and the enquirers, the ones who run and the ones who organise, the ones who work for others and the ones with 9-to-5 ‘normal’ jobs, the ones who know who they are and the ones who don’t (yet?). You’d need the ones who grieve and the ones who teach and the ones who are altogether out of your comprehension. The ones for whom life is fairly straightforward and the ones who are struggling. The ones who know about social media and the ones who think smartphones are the root of most dysfunction. The consistent and the more random.

The cooks are essential. The ones who don’t cook are allowed too.

You’d need big gaggles and small gaggles, all with the same purpose.

As a church, you really need the doves, the peacemakers, to manage the flock. But as a community, you are aiming to be the wild geese. The reminders, the inspirers, the heart-lifters of autumn. 

Karine Polwart, an Scottish folk singer, speaks about wild geese. This is a rough transcription:

In September the geese snake in across the Firth of Forth from their summer nests in Iceland and the costal cliffs of Greenland. Clattering and honking in their ever-shifting skeins.

My garden is a flight path. I watch, I listen.

The outstretched wingtips of each migrating goose create an upwash, a pocket of wind resistance with a bird tucked in behind and below.

These nooks of ease, these aerodynamic sanctuaries, cut the drag by up to 65%.

It’s a wonder, and it’s also a gale-bitten struggle to sustain cooperation. Every goose takes a turn, stepping up, falling back, labouring, and resting. Like sky-bourne soclialists, no lone bird bears the brunt.’[6]

The younger sister gave away her Bible.

Mostly, she thought, geese are good at getting where they are going. They are good at flying, high and far and very fast. And they do it together.

[1] ‘gaggle’ is the collective noun for geese. It is a brilliant word, and underused.


[3] Credit to N.R.




By Martha (aka Mary)

Theme photo by Michael Krahn on Unsplash

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