Last winter may have been tough in Fort Wayne, but at Hurshtown Reservoir near Grabill it was brutal.
Last fall, as happens every year, geese that had been injured by hunters or some other cause took refuge there, but a couple hundred other geese also tried to hole up there for the winter.
Ordinarily it’s a good place to spend the season. There’s plenty of grass and water plants for the birds to eat, there are cornfields and soybean fields nearby, and workers sometimes feed the birds corn.
But as record snowfall fell and bitter cold let the snow stack up, the grass and the farm fields were buried deep and the 260-acre pond froze over.
Workers tried to feed some of the geese, particularly the ones that were injured, but as the season hung on and the bitter cold persisted, the birds, starving, became desperate, fighting over what morsels were available.
By the end of the season, the banks of the reservoir, which still hold snow in some places, became littered with dozens of dead geese. Foxes and coyotes have gradually scavenged the dead birds, clearing the banks of their carcasses.
And in the aftermath of the worst season in decades, the reservoir was virtually deserted. Every one of the geese that tried to winter there had died – except one.
The sole survivor is a bird fittingly named Buckshot.
Buckshot first showed up at the reservoir in the fall of 2008. Much of its right side had been blown away by a hunter. One eye had been shot out, and one wing had been mangled so that it dragged on the ground and made it all but impossible for the goose to walk on dry land. It kept tripping over its maimed wing.
The bird could travel in water, but its useless wing hung in the water and acted like a rudder, causing the bird to swim in circles.
But the bird survived. Workers fed it corn, and eventually it was caught and an anonymous veterinarian removed its ruined wing, and Buckshot became a permanent resident, the ruler of the pond and caretaker for other injured geese.
Over the last winter, when healthy geese converged on the smattering of corn that workers would put out, Buckshot would reportedly try to chase away the healthy birds so the injured ones could eat.
It was a losing effort. All the birds starved – except, somehow, Buckshot.
On Tuesday afternoon, Buckshot made her rounds on the pond, patrolling the three-mile circumference of the reservoir. When two other geese landed, she trumpeted at them loudly, stretching her neck forward and flapping her remaining wing, likely announcing that this was her territory, that she was in charge.
Before long, Buckshot resumed her patrol of the water. One of the visitors fell in behind her, following her on her rounds.
The reservoir, which permits fishing and boating but no swimming, opens Tuesday, and, going on six years now, Buckshot will still be there calling the shots for airborne visitors.