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Brant the Goose


Dear Bird Folks,

I live in Brant, NY and like most people I’ve never paid much attention to the name of my town. I just accepted it. But the other day I started wondering if the town of Brant is named after the species of goose that is also called “Brant.” If it were, it would be pretty cool to live in a town named after a bird. Do you know if it is?

– David, Brant, NY


I agree with you, Dave,

It would be cool to live in a town named after a bird. I live in the town of Orleans, which is boringly named after some French guy. Why French? Supposedly, the townsfolk didn’t want a British name. Even though the Revolution was over, the locals were still mad at the Brits. They just couldn’t let it go. So they went French. It’s too bad they didn’t think of naming the town after a bird. How awesome would it be to live in a place called something like White-breasted Nuthatchville? Maybe I’ll start a petition.

I’m sad to report, Dave, that Brant, NY has nothing to do with birds. Sorry, bro. It appears your town is named after Joseph Brant, who has no relation to birds of any kind. Joseph Brant was a Mohawk leader who sided with the British during the American War for Independence. (Suddenly, this bird column has turned into History 101. And there’s more.) You might think that Joseph Brant, being a Native American, could conceivably have been named after a Brant, the bird, but this is not the case. Joseph Brant is actually his English name. His real name is Thayendanegea. Yup, good ol’ Thayendanegea. See why the English went with Joe Brant? Okay, no more history.

Brant are small geese that nest in northern Canada and winter along the both U.S. coasts, and aren’t often found anywhere in between (and certainly not in Brant, NY). Here on Cape Cod, Brant are fairly common birds in the winter. But because they superficially look like Canada Geese, most folks don’t notice them. How can you tell the difference? In addition to being smaller than Canada Geese, Brant are darker and don’t have the signature white cheek patch that Canada Geese have. Instead of a white cheek patch, Brant have a light collar around their neck, which makes them look like they are wearing a beautiful pearl choker. Brant may be small, but they have an excellent sense of style. Pearl chokers are way hipper than white cheeks.

I know a lot of people don’t like geese, but Brant typically don’t have issues with humans. Unlike Canada Geese, Brant don’t seem to be attracted to golf courses, playgrounds, or rich people’s docks. And as far as I know, a flock of Brant has never forced a plane to land in the Hudson River. One of the reasons Brant aren’t a huge problem on golf courses is because they aren’t big fans of golf, or at least not golf course grass. Their favorite foods are eelgrass, sea lettuce and green algae. (If your golf course is covered in any of those items, you might want to think about playing someplace else.)

Because Brant’s favorite foods are associated with saltwater, we aren’t likely to find them far from the ocean. Once Brant leave northern Canada in the fall, they make a 1,000-mile nonstop flight to the New England coast. Because they fly nonstop at extremely high altitudes, Brant aren’t often seen anywhere along the way. That means one day an area has no Brant and the next day it has plenty. I know this piece of information doesn’t sound like much. Who cares when and how Brant arrive? Well, my Irish relatives cared about it very much. They cared about it so much that years ago Brant actually affected the way the Catholics in Ireland practiced their religion. (I know I promised no more history, but this is pretty cool.)

Last week one of my favorite customers (who claims he grew up in Ireland and I believe him because I can only understand about every third word he says) gave me a published story about Brant and his childhood home. (FYI: In Ireland Brant are called “Brent Geese.” The Irish just like to be different.) I read the story and it made me smile. It sounded just like one of those weird columns I write on April 1st…only this story is true.

Remember back in the day when Catholics weren’t allowed to eat meat on Friday, but for some reason eating fish was acceptable? Well, there was one kind of meat they could eat and that was fresh Brant. Back before migration was understood, the Irish (and other cultures) had trouble figuring out where Brant come from. One day there wouldn’t be any around and the next day there’d be thousands. So they came up with a theory that adult Brant spent the summer just offshore, living underwater. (This is why I don’t drink Guinness.) Even the eggs, they believed, were laid underwater. Because the geese started their life under the seas, the Irish figured Brant must be a kind of shellfish. Thus, it was okay to eat them on Friday. Amazingly, the big shots in the Catholic Church were okay with it. This practice continued for centuries until some killjoy, probably a birder, figured out that the Brant were actually breeding up in Greenland during the summer and flew to the Irish coast for the winter. The jig was up. The Irish had to go back to eating stinky fish on Fridays and they weren’t happy. However, the fishermen were thrilled and so were the Brant…especially the Brant.

Sorry to say, Dave, your town, Brant, NY, isn’t named after a bird. But it could have been worse. You could be living in Thayendanegea, NY. Suddenly, even Orleans doesn’t seem so bad.