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Campus Life

The Goose Whisperer

Under the BU Bridge, a CAS lecturer tends her flock

Click above to learn more about Allison Blyler and the geese she looks after.

The sun hovers above the Boston skyline as Allison Blyler sets off across the BU Bridge toward Cambridge, her tattered backpack stuffed with grain, bread, and waterfowl pellets. Reaching an open expanse of green littered with goose down on the banks of the Charles River, she is greeted by the expectant honks of 89 geese hungry for their dinner.

The Emden, Chinese, and Toulouse geese — called collectively white geese — that live along this stretch of riverbank are long-standing members of the BU community. And for the last 20 years, they have been cared for by people like Blyler.

“These are not wild birds,” says Blyler, a lecturer in the College of Arts and Sciences Writing Program. “They are domestic breeds, unable to fend for themselves.”

The original flock lived at the Cambridge branch of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority and acted as sentinels, says Blyler, alerting workers to trespassers. Their services no longer required — today the plant is largely automated — the flock migrated downriver to an area by the BU Bridge called the meadow. “After the water plant released them,” she says, “members of the community fed them. The job gets passed down every few years.” 

A railroad trestle with spray-painted graffiti is a jarring backdrop to the towering maple and oak trees along the water’s edge and to the white geese, Canada geese, mallards, and the occasional pair of migrating swans that nonchalantly waddle by.

Blyler, who lives in Cambridge, spotted the geese walking across a frozen Charles River one snowy winter morning. “Their beauty just struck me,” she recalls, “and I started visiting regularly and got to know the man who fed them.”

Three years ago, when the birds’ caretaker became ill, Blyler and her friend Bill Naumann founded the Charles River Urban Wilds Initiative, a neighborhood group that feeds the white geese, clears the meadow of litter, and occasionally treats cuts and other injuries.

“For the most part,” Blyler says, “Bill and I do most of the feedings. We’re down here twice a day, seven days a week, rain or shine.” On average, the geese eat 50 pounds of vegetables a day. While the two pay for the grain and pellets out of their own pocket, local grocery stores donate the produce and bread. 

By now, Blyler and Naumann recognize each goose, often by name. “We tell them apart by variations in their beaks and feet,” Blyler says. “Each goose has its own personality, and it’s fascinating to observe the way they interact with one another and with us.”

Pinky, for example, eats directly from Blyler’s hand. “He’s very bonded to us,” she says, stroking his soft down, “but he tends to be timid around the other geese unless it’s nesting season. Then he turns into the fiercest protector of the meadow.”

Buddy, who Blyler estimates is between 15 and 20 years old, is “the group’s sentinel, and he helps the families by acting as a third parent — sort of like an uncle figure.”

The population is typically stable. While the birds nest every spring, Blyler says, they don’t have many goslings. This year there were only six. “That’s okay,” she says. “We don’t want them to have more babies than the space can support.”

Blyler says the geese are very much a part of the local community. “They are complex beings deserving of respect and care,” she says. “And their presence provides a bridge to the natural world that many city dwellers would otherwise never cross.”

As evening settles in, Blyler and Naumann pack their bags and head for home. Their bellies full, the geese gather in a circle and tuck their heads under their wings. Blyler gives Pinky a final pat good-bye. “I’ll see you in the morning,” she whispers.

Vicky Waltz can be reached at vwaltz@bu.edu.