Geese aren’t everyone’s idea of a great back-yard animal. I’ve heard all the stories – they’re noisy, vicious, aggressive, messy, horrible hellbeasts. But I have a confession to make: I’ve always kinda wanted to have geese. Since well before I saw the film Fly Away Home (about a little girl who rescues a nest full of orphaned Canada geese, and raises them, teaching them to fly and eventually leading them on an epic microlight journey as she teaches them a safe migration route for their annual migration), I thought geese were adorable. I didn’t have any latent desire to have chickens (although since getting my first hens, I’ve discovered that I love keeping chooks, and I really miss it when I don’t have them around), but geese are different. I have no idea why 🙂
This week, my very first goslings hatched. I’ve had four Pilgrim Goose eggs in the incubator for the last month (goose eggs take 26 – 35 days to hatch), and three of them have hatched. Given that geese are well known for being difficult to hatch in an incubator, and even commercial farm advice is to hatch them under a broody mother goose or under a muscovy duck, that’s a pretty good hatch rate. I was desperately hoping at least two would hatch, because geese are flock critters and form very strong flock bonds – having a lone goose is cruel and very bad for the goose. So three is fantastic. It looks like at least 2 of them are girls, too (I can’t quite tell for the 3rd). Since geese can live well into their teens, sometimes longer, that means that if I have a pair of girls I can find them a good (unrelated) gander in a year or two and start breeding my own goslings.
The domestic goose (Anser anser domesticus) of Europe, North Africa and Western Asia is descended from the greylag goose (Anser anser), while the domesticated goose of East Asia (Anser cygnoides domesticus, commonly called the ‘Chinese goose’) is descended from the swan goose (Anser cygnoides). The two types of domesticated geese can interbreed, and many flocks include both types, and/or hybrids. There is evidence of domesticated geese in Egypt over 4,000 years ago. Pilgrim geese, sometimes known as Settlers Geese in Australia, are an autosexing breed – males are white, while females are darker, with grey and white or brown and white plumage. Pilgrim Geese were bred in the 1930s in America, and are probably derived from a few European breeds of autosexing geese. They’re generally mellow and calm natured, and for being good foragers and good parents (laying 20 – 50 eggs per year). Like all geese, they have good eyesight, good memories, and they prefer to have a set, calm routine. When there isn’t something riling them up, they aren’t usually that noisy, either.
Geese are grazing animals, more like sheep and goats than like chickens. With access to good pasture, they need little or no supplementary feeding, although if there isn’t plentiful pasture they can be fed grain like other poultry. They will (apparently) eat hay, but only if it’s wet, as the dry hay is difficult for them to eat. Goslings should be fed grass clippings from 2 weeks of age, to help with the development of their gut flora – feeding grass earlier than that is also ok, as long as gosling starter crumble is also available. Young geese grow very quickly, and need a high protein (around 28% protein) feed for the first 4 – 6 weeks). Feed for goslings cannot contain any medications or pesticides/herbicides, as their livers can’t process these chemicals. Adult geese will happily graze pasture or weed gardens (they avoid some cultivated plants, but cannot be trusted around lettuce and similar salad greens), or they can be fed grain or poultry pellets and grass clippings. If pasture is not available, geese must be provided with grass or greens such as lettuce. They also need plenty of fresh water – like ducks, they need to be able to submerge their entire heads to clean their nostrils. Geese do not need water to swim in unless you want fertilised eggs (they mate in the water).
Domestic goose breeds can weigh up to 10 kg at maturity, although there are smaller breeds (such as the Pilgrim Goose, which weighs from 5 kg up to 7.5 – 8kg), and they lay up to 60 eggs per year. Chinese Geese tend to lay more eggs than the European breeds. All geese (wild and domestic) are seasonal layers, and only lay in spring, usually starting in August or September in the southern hemisphere. A goose will generally lay an egg a day during the breeding season, and will go broody and sit on her eggs when the clutch reaches 5 – 15 eggs. If the goose-keeper steals the eggs, the goose will keep laying.
Goose eggs are large and hard-shelled. They weigh 120 – 170g each, and are both edible and tasty; the flavour is slightly different to chicken eggs. Like duck eggs, goose eggs are richer than chicken eggs, and when cooked the yolk texture is slightly denser. If you want to hatch them in an incubator, it will take 26 – 35 days, at 37.5 degrees C. Once the goslings begin pipping and trying to hatch, it can take up to 3 days for them to emerge form their eggs – be very careful if you decide to help them out, since (just like chickens, and any other bird) if the chick is still connected to the egg, breaking those blood vessels can cause serious injury. (That said, I did help my gosling out of their eggs, by gently cracking the shell so they could get out more easily – I was afraid that the egg membranes would dry out too much during hatching and they wouldn’t be able to get out. I’m an anxious bird-parent.). The humidity requirements are complex, with two options:
- For a wet incubation, the humidity should be 50 – 55% until day 27 (or until the first pipping), then increased to 75% until hatch.
- For a ‘dry’ incubation (which means you can incubate chicken, quail, or guinea fowl eggs at the same time), keep the humidity at 20 – 25% for the first 14 days, before raising it to around 60%. From day 7 onwards, mist or sprinkle the eggs daily with tepid water; after day 15, every 2nd day you should submerge the eggs in warm water (37.5 degrees C) for 1 minute. Form day 7 the eggs should also be cooled (taken out of the incubator) for 5 – 10 minutes, increasing to 15 minutes per day after day 15.
Geese which are hand raised and regularly handled do, apparently, become very tame. They recognise individual humans (and dogs, etc.), and will raise an alarm if a stranger approaches while being perfectly happy to let ‘their’ humans approach. The only exception is egg laying season, during which the males will aggressively protect the nesting females from any intruder. Female geese may lunge at a person to protect goslings, or if on a nest full of eggs. Other than that, geese are fairly docile; they can be easily herded, as they tend to move directly away from an approaching human. There is no need to run (geese can injure themselves if forced to run) or make noises, just walk slowly towards the geese and they will move away as a flock. As an aside, when catching geese, never grab them by the legs, as their leg bones are easily broken; instead, grab the goose by the neck (gently), either by hand or using a shepherds crook. If picking up a goose, make sure to keep the wings controlled, as geese are very strong and can injure a person if they hit them in the face with their wings.
In spite of the fact that a goose is quite a large bird, foxes (or dogs or cats) can and will kill one if they get the opportunity. Because of the risk of predators, geese should be locked into secure housing at night just like any other poultry, and should be protected with secure fencing. Goose housing should have either a solid or slat floor, and a fox-proof door to lock the birds in at night. Fresh absorbent bedding such as wood shavings (in an 8 – 10 cm layer) will help maintain dry conditions and keep your geese clean and healthy (but do not use any scented bedding or anything containing eucalyptus, because it can kill goslings!), and you should provide nest boxes. Goose houses should allow 1 sqm per bird. Other than safe housing, geese need some shelter during hot, summer weather, and if you get snow or severe rain and storms, they’ll need shelter from those too. Aside from night time housing for predator protection, you can free range geese without a problem (remember that you can easily herd them, like chilled out sheep), or you can keep them in a fenced yard. If geese are kept in a yard, you should allow 2 sqm per bird, although larger is better. You should provide 15cm of feeder length per bird to prevent competition for food, and clean, fresh water deep enough for them to submerge their whole heads.
Goose used to be the festive roast of choice in Europe; the meat is darker, richer, and more succulent than turkey or chicken, similar to duck. Goose fat has historically been rendered and used to cook other foods (goose-fat potatoes are amazing!), and the technique is coming back into fashion – you can buy tubs of goose fat in most supermarkets now. Goose quills were the feathers used to make pens before the fountain pen and ballpoint became common, and goose down is still u sed to stuff pillows and duvets. Geese will mow your lawn (and fertilise it at the same time) and weed your garden, and they’re smart enough to make pretty good pets too if you take the time to tame them and teach them that you’re not a threat and are rather a source of treats and happiness. They don’t need much from you in return: a safe place to sleep, clean water, and a bit of food to supplement their grazing.
In summary: geese are awesome, and goslings may be the cutest fluffs that ever fluffed. Ask me again in 6 months when my goslings are adults 🙂
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