Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.
Bent Life History for the Greater White-fronted Goose - the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
ANSER ALBIFRONS ALBIFRONS (Scopoli)
Two forms of the white-fronted goose have long stood on our Check List unchallenged: a smaller European form (albifrons) and a larger American form (gambelli). The status of the Europeaii form as an American bird was based on a somewhat doubtful record for eastern Greenland, where it was supposed to occur only as a straggler. It was supposed to be entirely replaced in North America by the larger form, where all the American geese of this species were called gambelli. This was not a very satisfactory arrangement, for the two forms were so much alike that it was very difficult to distinguish them, and some European writers refused to recognize them. Recently Messrs. Swarth and Bryant (1917) have demonstrated that there are probably two subspecies of whitefronted geese which spend the winter in California between which there is a striking difference in size, and there are some other differences. They have also shown that Hartlaub's name, gambelli, belongs to the larger and tile rarer of the two and that all of the smaller white-fronted geese, which are far commoner, should be called albifrons.
The white-fronted goose has a wide distribution; in the eastern half of this continent it is everywhere rare, but on migrations and in its western winter range it is locally abundant; in much of its breeding range in the far northwest it is one of the commonest and best known of the geese.
Spring: In writing of this species at Fort Klamath, Oregon, Dr. J. C. Merrill (1888) says:
Very common in April, the main flight occurring between the 20th and 30th, and many flocks stopping to feed in the grassy meadows bordering the marsh. The upper part of the valley is inclosed on the west and north by the main divide of the Cascade Mountains and on the east by a spur from the same range, all averaging a height of over 6,500 feet. On stormy days, If the wind was not blowing from the south, geese flying low up the vafley had great difficulty In rising sufficiently to cross the abrupt divide, and most of them would return to the marsh and Its vicinity to wait for a more favorable opportunity. At such times geese of this and the next species gathered by thousands and afforded great sport. The Immense numbers of these birds that migrate through western Oregon can not be appreciated until one has seen their spring flight, which, I am Informed, extends in width from the coast Inland about 250 or 300 miles. About 50 of this species were seen at the marsh on May 23 and 20, on May 27 and June 3, after which none were observed; their remaining so late excited general remark among the settlers.
Nesting: Of the arrival and nesting of this goose at St. Michael, Alaska, Dr. E. W. Nelson (1887) writes:
When the white-fronted goose first arrives in the north the lakes are but Just beginning to open and the ground Is stlU largely covered with snow. The last year's heath berries afford them sustenance, in common with most of the other wild fowl at this season. As the season advances they become more numerous and noisy. Their loud call notes and the cries of the males are heard everywhere.
The mating season is quickly ended, however, and on May 27, 1879, I found their eggs at the Yukon mouth. From this date on until the middle of June fresh eggs may be found, but very soon after this latter date the downy young begin to appear. These geese choose for a nesting site the grassy border of a small lakelet, a knoll grown over with moss and grass, or even a flat, sparingly covered with grass. Along the Yukon, Dali found them breeding gregariously, depositing their eggs In a hollow scooped out In the sand. At the Yukon mouth and St. Michael they were found breeding in scattered pairs over the flat country. Every one of the nests examined by me in these places had a slight lining of grass or moss, gathered by the parent, and upon this the first egg was laid; as the complement of eggs is approached the female always plucks down and feathers from her breast until the eggs rest in a soft warm bed, when incubation commences.
John Murdoch (1885) says that at Point Barrow: the eggs are always laid in the black, muddy tundra, often on top of a slight knoll. The nest is lined with tundra moss and down. The number of eggs in a brood appears subject to considerable variation, as we found sets of 4, 6, and 7, all well advanced in Incubation. The last-laid egg is generally in the middle of the nest and may be recognized by its white shell unless incubation is far advanced, the other eggs being stained and soiled by the birds coming on and off the nest.
Roderick MacFarlane (1891) writes:
A considerable number of nests of this '~gray wavy" was discovered in the vicinity of fresh-water lakes in timber tracts, as well as along the tower Anderson River to the sea. Some were taken on the Arctic coast, and several also on islands and islets in Franklin Bay. In all, about 100 nests were secured. The nest, which was always a mere shallow cavity in the ground, in every observed and reported Instance had more or less of a lining of hay, feathers, and down, while the maximum number of eggs in no case exceeded 7. On the 5th of July, 1864, on our return trip from Franklin Bay we observed 30 molting ganders of this species on a small lake in the Barrens. Our party divided, and by loud shooting and throwing stones at them they were driven to land, where 27 of them were run down and captured. Their flesh proved excellent eating; it is seldom, indeed, that I have come across a gray wavy that was not in good condition in the far North.
A nest of the white-fronted goose in the writer's collection was ï taken near Point Barrow, Alaska, on June 27, 1916. It consists of a. mass of pale gray and white down, thoroughly mixed with breast feathers of the goose, bits of dry, coarse grasses, lichens, mosses, dead leaves of the dwarf willow, and other rubbish found on the tundra; it is quite different in appearance from the nests of other geese. It contained four eggs advanced in incubation.
Eggs: The white-fronted goose lays from 4 to 7 eggs, usually 5 or 6. These vary in shape from elliptical oval or elliptical ovate to elongate ovate. The color varies from "light buff" to creamy white or pale pinkish white. I have never seen any tinge of greenish in the eggs of this goose. The eggs often become very much stained with buffy or reddish brown stains, such as "cinnamon buff" or "ochraceous buff," which rub off or scratch off in irregular patches, exposing the original color; there are often several degrees of color in the same set of eggs, the freshest egg being quite clean and the oldest eggs decidedly dark colored. The measurements of 109 eggs, in various collections, average 79 by 52.5 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 89.6 by 48, 82 by 58, 70 by 52, and 77.2 by 46.7 millimeters.
Young: The period of incubation does not seem to be positively known, but probably it is about 28 days. The male does not desert the female during the process, and both sexes help in caring for and protecting the young. Mr. Hersey, while collecting for me on the Yukon delta, encountered a family of these birds, about which he wrote in his notes for June 21, 1914, as follows:
On the edge of a little pond on the tundra about 5 miles back from the mouth of the river I found a pair of these geese and a brood of five young. The birds had been resting under a clump of dwarf willows, and on my approach the old birds came out into the open and attempted to lead the young away over the open tundra. The young, although not more than a day or two old, could run as fast as a man could travel over the rough ground. I had to remove my coat before I could overtake them. They did not scatter, but ran straight ahead, keeping close together, one of the parents running by their side and guiding them and the other flying along above them and not more than 3 feet above the ground. The young kept up a faint calling, and the old birds occasionally gave a low note of encouragement
Doctor Nelson (1887) says:
The young are pretty little objects and are guarded with the greatest care by the parents, the male and female joining in conducting their young from place to place and in defending them from danger. The last of June, in 1877, 1 made an excursion to Stewart Island, near St. Michael, and while crossing a flat came across a pair of these geese lying prone upon the ground In a grassy spot, with necks stretched out in front and their young crouching prettily all about them. Very frequently during my visits to the haunts of these birds the parents were seen leading their young away through the grass, all crouching and trying to make themselves as inconspicuous as possible. At Kotzebue Sound, during the Oorwin's visit in July, 1881, old and young were very common on the creeks and fiats at the head of Eschscholtz Bay.
John Koren collected for me in northeastern Siberia a strange family party consisting of a female spectacled eider and two downy young white-fronted geese.
Plumages: The downy young white-fronted goose is a beautiful creature, thickly covered with long, soft down and brightly colored. It somewhat resembles the young Canada goose, but the upper parts are a trifle duller in color, and the bill is brown with a light-colored nail, instead of all black as in the Canada. The colors of the upper parts, including the central crown, back, wings, rump, and flanks, vary from "buffy olive'~ to "ecru olive," darkest on the crown and rump and palest on the upper back, with a yellowish sheen; there is a faint loral and postocular stripe of olive; on the remainder of the head and neck the colors shade froln "olive ocher" on the forehead, cheeks, and neck to "colonial buff" on the throat; the colors on the under parts shade from "mustard yellow" on the breast to "citron yellow" on the belly. The colors become duller and browner with increasing age; large downy young are "olive brown" above and grayish or "deep olive buff" below.
I have seen no specimens showing the development of the juvenal plumage. This is much like the adult plumage, except that the" white front" is lacking and there are no black spots on the under parts, which are mottled with whitish and gray; the upper parts are duller colored with lighter edgings; the tail feathers are more pointed and narrower and the wing coverts are narrower than in adults. This plumage is worn without much change during the first winter and spring; but more or less white appears in the "white front," and sometimes a few black spots appear in the breast. The tail is molted in the spring, and during the next summer a complete postnuptial molt produces a plumage which is practically adult.
Food: Lucien M. Turner (1886) says, of the food of this species: "It inhabits the fresh-water lagoons, and is essentially a vegetarian. The only animal food found in their crops was aquatic larvae and insects. I am not aware that it eats shellfish at any season of the year. The young grass shoots found in the margins of the ponds form its principal food." Doctor Nelson (1887) says: "During August and September the geese and many other wild fowl in the north feed upon the abundant berries of that region and become very fat and tender." In the interior valleys of California, where it spends the winter, and on its migrations through agricultural districts, it feeds in the grain fields on fallen grain in the fall and on the tender shoots of growing grain in the spring. In some places where these geese were formerly abundant they did so much damage to the young crops that the farmers hired men to drive them away.
Audubon (1840) says:
In feeding they immerse their necks, like other species; hut during continued rains they visit the cornfields and large savannahs. While in Kentuckv they feed on the beech nuts and acorns that drop along the margins of their favorite ponds. In the fields they pick up the grains of maize left by the squirrels and racoons, and nibble the young blades of grass. In their gizzards I have never found fishes nor water lizards, hut often broken shells of different kinds of snails.
Behavior: The flight of the white-fronted goose is similar to that of the Canada goose, for which it might easily be mistaken at a distance. It flies in V-shaped flocks, led by an old gander, and often very high in the air. Its flight has been well described by Neltie Blanchan (1898) as follows:
A long clanging cackle, waft, we?,, waft, wah, rapidly repeated, rings out of the late autumn sky, an(1 looking up, we see a long, orderly line of laughing geese that have been feeding since daybreak In the stubble of harvested grain fields, heading a direct course for the open water of some lake. With heads thrust far forward, these flying projectiles go through space with enviable ease of motion. Because they are large and fly high, they appear to move slowly; whereas the truth Is that all geese, when once fairly launched, fly rapidly, which becomes evident enough when they whiz by us at close range. It Is only when rising against the wind and making a start that their flight Is actually slow and difficult. ~Vhen migratIng, they often trail across the clouds like dots, so high do they go: sometimes a thousand feet or more, it is said: as if they spurned the earth. But as a matter of fact they spend a great part of their lives on land; far more than any of the ducks.
On reaching a point above the water when returning from the feeding grounds the long defile closes up into a mass. The geese now break ranks, and each for Itself goes wheeling about, cackling constantly, as they sail on stiff, set wings; or, diving, tumbling, turning somersaults downard, and catching themselves before they strike the water, form an orderly array again, and fly silently, close along the surface quite a distance before finally settling down upon it softly to rest.
The peculiar laughing cry of this bird has given it the name of "laughing goose." Its cries are said to be loud and harsh, sounding like the syllable wah rapidly repeated; the note is easily imitated by striking the mouth with the hand While rapidly uttering the above sound.
The following, taken from Mr. MacFarlane's unpublished notes, illustrates the methods employed by the natives to capture these and other geese during the flightless molting season:
On 12th July we observed about 30 geese (Aaser grzmhdui) on the edge of a small lake (in the water) in The Barren Grounds; they were all ganders, and molting. On our approach they went sailing (swimming) across the lake, which was about 2 miles in extent. Our party then divided: half taking one side, and half the other side of the lake: and by the time we reached the spot where the geese had quitted the water, they had all concealed themselves as well as the scant grass and low tangled willows in the vicinity would admit. After we discovered their whereabouts there was some sport and a lively chase after them, and we soon succeeded in securing 27 out of the 30: the remaining 3 havIng escaped beyond our reach, although followed for some distance Into the water. They were all in good condition, In fact, gray wavies are always fat and excellent eating, while it Is but seldom in spring and never in summer that a really good Canada goose is met with. The Indians inform me that when they observe a flock of swans or geese on a lake, during the molting season, they at once make a fire on the shore, and they state that this course on their part never fails to drive the geese, etc., on land, where most of them easily fall a prey to the hunter. If they were only wise enough to remain in the water at a proper distance they ~vould he safe enough.
Fall: The white-fronted goose does not start to migrate until driven south by cold weather. Doctor Nelson (1887) says:
All through September, old and young, which have been on the wing sInce August, gather in larger flocks, and as the sharp frosts toward the end of September warn them of approaching winter, commence moving south.
The marshes resound with their cries, and after some days of chattering, flying hack and forth, and a general bustle, they suddenly start off in considerable flocks, and a few laggards which remain get away by the 7th or 8th of October.
There is a southward migration through the Mississippi Valley to the Gulf coast of Louisiana and Texas, but the main flight trends more to the southwestward to the principal winter home of the species in California. Doctor Colles (1874) writes:
The "speckle-bellies," as they are called in California, associate freely at all times with both the snow and Hutchins geese, and appear to have the same general habits, as well as to subsist upon the same kinds of food. Their flesh is equally good for the table. As is the case with other spe~ies, they are often hunted, In regions where they have become too wild to be otherwise successfully approached, by means of bullocks trained for the purpose. Though they may have learned to distrust the approach of a horse, and to make off with commendable discretion from what they have found to be a dangerous companion of that animal, they have not yet come to the same view with respect to horned cattle, and great numbers are slaughtered annually by taking advantage of their Ignorance. The bullock is laught to feed quietly along toward a flock, the gunner meanwhile keeping himself screened from the birds' view by the body of the animal until within range. Though I have not myself witnessed this method of hunting, I should judge the gunners killed a great many geese, since they talk of its "raining geese" after a double discharge of the tremendous guns they are in the habit of using. Man's Ingenuity overreaches any bird's sagacity, no doubt, yet the very fact that the geese, which would fly from a horse, do not yet fear an ox. argues for them powers of discrimination that command our admiration.
Winter: Dr. L: C. Sanford (1903) has given us a good account of hunting white-fronted and snow geese in their winter haunts, as follows:
The large bodies of water that are found at rare intervals in northern Mexico are the resort through the winter of countless numbers of geese; not the Canada goose of the East and Middle ~Vest, but the snow goose and the white-fronted goose. In early October the hordes arrive, announcing their coming with discordant clamor. They choose as a resting place the shallow alkali waters, and as a feeding ground the neighboring corn stubble, if such there be. A short distance from Minaca is one of these lakes, some 20 miles in length. In the Mexican summer rains replenish the scanty water supply left over from the spring, and October finds It a paradise for waterfowl. Shut In by the rolling hills of the mesa, yellow with wavy grass, its blue surface refleets a bluer sky. All around, as far as the eye can reach, are herds of cattle, for some 6 miles away is a ranch; and at this spot one fall recently we stopped. Early In the morning a breakfast of tortillas and coffee was served, and before It was finished a Mexican boy appeared with the horses. Guns were slipped Into the saddle cases. Our attendant found room for most of our ammunition in his saddlebag, and we started for the lake. It was a ride of about 6 mIles over an open country, hut the horses were fast, and In less than half an hour we looked down from a knoll on the sheet of water some 2 miles away. Along the farther shore was a bank of white, shining Ia the light of sunrise: a solid bank of snow geese. Scattered over Its surface everywhere were flocks of (hicks and geese, black masses of them. We hurried on, passing through herd after herd of cattle, which Increased in numbers as the water was approached. A coyote stopped to take a fleeting glance from the top of a hill opposite, then disappeared. A jack rabbit scurried from In front. A familiar cry overhead caused us to look up. It came from a flock of sandhill cranes, far out of reach, which were sailing on toward their feeding ground In the stubble. We reached the edge of the lake, and hundreds of ducks rose as the horses neared them, mostly shovelers and teal, but mallard, widgeon, and pintail were all there. The geese were across the lake, thousands In one band. Every now and then a white line jointed the resting birds, and at the approach of a flock their discordant cries could he heard a mile away. How to get a shot seemed more or less of a problem, owing to lack of cover. Finally we noticed a few bunches of rushes extending well out Into the lake, the only possible chance to hide. We waded out and took a position in the farthest clump. The Mexican led off the horses and started on a tour to the farther shore. It was a long way off, almost 4 miles, but there was plenty to watch. Every few minutes flocks of ducks would pass over us in range, but we let them go. Gulls circled around, crying at the unusual sight of two men with guns. We looked over at the geese. At times cattle seemed almost among them; yet the white assembly did not move, and we only heard them when a flock was about to alight to those on the ground. The horses were getting closer, and finally a part of the body started, to settle dowa a little farther on. But presently a tumultuous clamor, and the entire company was In motion. Line after line separated and led out into the lake. Some followed the opposite shore; an immense flock led toward our clump, and we crouched In the water. On they came, scarcely a hundred ynrds off. But geese are uncertain, even in Mexico, and for some reason best known to themselves they turned when just out of range and led toward the shore beyond us. In a few minutes they were reassembled and the immediate prospect of a shot gone. The Mexican, with his string of horses, continued down the opposite side, evidently after birds we could not see. Ducks were around us all the time, and flocks drifted by within easy range, unmolested. Before long we heard the familiar cry and looked to see a mass of white heading for the flock on the shore; our blind was right In their line, and they came on, low down over the water, nearer and nearer; finally, 50 or more seemed directly over us, so close we could see their red bills and legs. This was the chance; back to back we raked them, four barrels; 3 birds fell on one side, 2 on the other. The reports started all of the wild fowl In the country. In a few minutes part of the first flock came over us from the opposite direction, and 2 dropped. A flock of geese swung in range over the dead birds, and we killed 2 more. For an hour the shots were frequent, but the birds became wiser every minute and kept to the middle of the lake or else came over the blind out of range. We picked up 18, a dozen white, the rest white-fronted: all one Mexican could pack on a horse.
Breeding range: Nearly circumpolar. On the barren grounds and Arctic coasts of North America, east at least as far as the Anderson River and Beechey Lake, in the district of Mackenzie, and west as far as the Yukon Valley (Fort Yukon, Lake Minchumina and the Yukon delta). On the west coast of Greenland, mainly between 660 and 720 N. In Iceland, Lapland, Nova Zembla, Kola, Kolguev, and along the Arctic coast of Siberia to Bering Straits. The only gap in the circumpolar breeding range seems to be between the district of Mackenzie and Greenland; this may prove to be the breeding range of the large tule goose, now called gainbelli.
Winter range: In North America. mainly in western United States and Mexico. East to the Mississippi Valley, rare east of that. and hardly more than casual on the Atlantic coast. South to the coast of Louisiana and Texas and to central western Mexico (Jalisco a~d Cape San Lucas). West to the Pacific coasts of Mexico and United States. North to southern British Columbia, southern Illinois, and perhaps Ohio. In the Eastern Hemisphere, south to Japan, China, India, the Caspian, Black, and Mediterranean Seas and northern Africa.
Spring migration: Early dates of arrival: Manitoba, Aweme, April 5; Mackenzie, Fort Simpson, May 11, Fort McMurray, May 15, and Fort Anderson, May 16; Coronation Gulf, May 31. Alaska dates of arrival: Forrester Island, April 24, St. Michael, April 25, Kuskokwim River, April 29, Kowak River, May 10, Wainwright, May 27, Point Barrow, May 16. Late dates of departure: California, Stockton, May 2; Washington, Grays Harbor, May 5; Manitoba, Shoal Lake, May 26; Alaska, Kuiu Island, May 6; Oregon, Fort Klamath, June 3.
Fall migration: Early dates of arrival: Manitoba, Aweme, September 7 (average October 2); Alberta, Red Deer River, September 12; Alaska, Sitka, September 29; British Columbia, Porcher Island, September 6; Washington, Tacoma, October 1; Colorado, Brighton, October 1; Utah, Bear River, October 10; California, Stockton, September 7. Late dates of departure: Mackenzie, Great Bear Lake, October 9; Alaska, St. Michael, October 8, and Craig, November 8; Manitoba, Aweme, November 1.
Casual records: Has wandered east to Labrador (Hopedale, May, 1900), Massachusetts (Essex County, October 5, 1888, Plymouth, November 26, 1897, and Ipswicb, August, 1907), North Carolina (Currituck Sound, January 1897), and Cuba. Said to have occurred in the Hawaiian Islands.
Egg dates: Arctic Canada: Seventeen records, June 2 to July 10; nine records, June 24 to July 6. Alaska: Twelve records, May 23 to July 25; six records, June 5 to 24. Greenland: Five records June 4 to July 26.
ANSER ALBIFRONS GAMBELLI Hartlaub
The above scientific name has been in use for many years to designate the North American race of the white-fronted goose, which was understood to be slightly larger and to have a decidedly larger bill than the European bird. But the characters were not sufficiently well marked and not constant enough to fully satisfy all the European writers, many of whom questioned the validity of the race. Recently, however, Messrs. Swarth and Bryant (1917) have established the fact "that two well-defined subspecies of Anser albifrons occur in California during the winter months, instead of the single race heretofore recognized." Tule goose is the common name they have proposed for the newly discovered larger race, and they seem to have shown that Hartlaub's name, gambelli, refers to the larger rather than to the smaller and commoner race. In addition to a marked difference in size between the two races, comparable to that existing between the Canada and the Hutchins geese, "the larger birds are of a browner tint, and the smaller ones more gray. This is especially noticeable in the heads and necks. In some individuals of the larger race the head is extremely dark brown, almost black." Also the larger bird is said to have the "naked skin at edge of eyelid, yellow or orange," whereas in the smaller bird it is "grayish brown.
At present the tule goose is known only from its limited winter range in California. Its center of abundance seems to be in Butte and Sutter Basins in the Sacramento Valley, but there are persistent rumors among hunters that it occurs also in the Los Ba~os region in the San Joaquin Valley and at Maine Prairie in Solano County. I have examined and measured perhaps half a dozen large specimens of white-fronted geese in eastern collections, taken at widely scattered localities in the Mississippi Valley, Hudson Bay, and even on the Atlantic coast, that measured well up within the range of measurements of the tule goose, but they have nc,t been compared with typical large birds from California, nor have they been examined by anyone who is familiar with the characteristics of the tule goose; they may be stragglers of the larger race or they may be only extra large individuals of the smaller race.
Nesting: In my attempt to establish a breeding range for the larger race I find nothing but negative evidence. There are very few specimens of breeding birds in American collections, and all of those that I have seen are referable to the smaller race. I have collected the measurements of 109 eggs, taken in various localities in northeastern Siberia, Alaska, northern Canada, and Greenland, and they show no correlation of size with locality; the largest two sets came from Greenland and Siberia and the smallest two from Point Barrow and Greenland; average measurements from one locality are not materially different from those from another locality. Moreover, the average measurements of the 109 eggs are very close to the average measurements of 81 eggs of European birds; and the extremes in our series are inclusive. From the above we can infer oniy that the breeding range of the larger race has never been found and that none of its eggs are in existence. The breeding range of the species, Anser aThifrons, is circumpolar, except for a decided gap between Greenland and the district of Mackenzie. Somewhere in this gap, or in the Arctic regions north of it, may be the breeding grounds of the big tule goose. An interesting parallel is seen in the case of the Ross goose, which also is found in a restricted winter range in California; the breeding grounds of both are entirely unknown; perhaps some day both may be found breeding somewhere in the vast unexplored regions of the Arctic Archipelago.
Behavior: Messrs. Swarth and Bryant (1917) have referred to certain characteristic habits of the tule goose, as follows:
It is said that the two kinds flock separately, for the most part; and that the larger race is never seen in such big flocks as is customary with the other, but is most frequently noted singly or in pairs. Also that while the smaller variety is a common frequenter of grain fields and uplands generally the larger one Is preeminently a denizen of open water or of ponds and sloughs surrounded by tules and willows. The predilection of the latter species for such localities has given rise to the local names by which it is known, "tule goose," or "timber goose," as contrasted with the upland-frequenting "specklebelly."
The notes of the tule goose are said to be "coarser and harsher" than those of the smaller bird.
Breeding range: Unknown. It may fill in the gap in the known breeding range of aThifron.s, between the district of Mackenzie anti Greenland, where much far northern land is unexplored.
Winter range: Mainly in California (Sacramento Valley). It may also occur in other central valleys of California and perhaps rarely elsewhere.
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