A few days ago I headed out onto Forvie moor at first light. The flooded piece west of the visitor centre had been the night time destination for some of the thousands of pink-footed geese that are in the area. That morning they had already gone leaving a blizzard of feathers and a carpet of poo…and 2 dead fellow geese. I could see from the distance 2 bodies, 1 lying in shallow water of the pool the other on the mud, both showing no signs of struggle or wounds, both seemed to have passed away quietly during the night. It might be that both were weakened by the long migration flight or the might have been fatally wounded by shot from wildfowlers and succumbed during the night. Either way, they were worth a moments pause to wonder what their life journeys had been that lead to this fateful pool at Forvie and to admire the sheer beauty of these birds. And it also gave me a chance to have a close look at these birds. Pink feet are classified as “grey geese” giving the impression that they might be dull on the eye but nothing could be further from the truth. Up close these are striking birds. We see plenty of pinkies feeding in the fields or flying over but I have never had one in the hand before. The subtle scalloping of the feathers, softness and strength of their wing feathers and the dappled shadows and varied grey across their bodies were worth lingering over. And I could see that though both birds were clearly pinkies they were very different.
These differences made one bird a juvenile, one hatched this year while the other was a mature adult.
The youngster has it first set of feathers on, these don’t have the pale edges and tips that the adults feathers have, especially on the flanks and the coverts (the top side of the wings). A young birds feathers are also narrower and shorter. Even on the neck there is a difference with the adults having more distinct furrows in the feathers. And when I checked the legs for rings (there weren’t any) I could see that the adults feet were stout, solid and a rich pink colour while the juveniles were much duller in colour. These juveniles, in normal circumstances, will gradually moult these youngster feathers and grow a new set of adult feathers in time for spring and the long journey north again.
This difference between adult and juvenile feathers helps us monitor how the pinkie population is doing. By counting the mix of adults and youngsters in the flocks arriving here in the UK the success of the breeding season can be recorded – how many youngsters against numbers of adults. All useful information when so many species, especially very northern ones are finding the conditions of a changing climate difficult to deal with.