Geese, A Brief History

Geese are generally hardy and easy to manage. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization calls them “The Underestimated Species,” because they are so well suited to small sustainable farm operations. They “are cheap and easy to maintain and that provide animal protein as well as cash income,” the FAO report says.

They graze grasses for their food and form a sociable gaggle, the word used for a group on the ground. They are a flock in flight. Cotton Patch Geese got their name from the work they did on the farm. They went into the cotton fields to eat grass and weeds. They are picky eaters, able to distinguish between grass and crops such as cotton and tobacco. An ecological weed and pest control!

Geese have a long history with humans. Think Mother Goose! The Egyptians domesticated Asia’s Swan Goose and Europe’s Graylag Goose 5,000 years ago as they migrated through the natural flyway between Africa and Eurasia. They caught thousands in nets, then kept them in pens and bred them.

Geese had religious significance to ancient Romans and Greeks. A famous tale credits the white geese that lived in the temples of Juno, queen of the gods, wife of Jupiter and protector of Rome with saving Rome from an attack by the Gauls. They squawked the alarm and awakened the guards.

Saint Martin of Tours is the patron saint of geese, a 4th century martyr.  Again, the attention they attracted with their noisy honking is the central factor in St. Martin’s tale. He didn’t want to be the bishop, so he hid in a barn with the geese. Their honking drew the faithful to his hiding place. He became bishop in 372. Goose is the traditional bird on his feast day, November 11.

Consider why those legends feature how noisy geese are. Neighbors may object. Geese make excellent watchdogs.  Chinese and African Geese are especially inclined to make themselves known.

Today, domestic geese retain some wild qualities. Wild geese can be relatively easily tamed and may breed with domestic flocks. Domestic geese remain seasonal egg layers, like their wild relatives. Chinese Geese are good natural layers and will produce up to 100 eggs during the season. Some other breeds lay between 20 and 40 eggs in a season.

Domestic geese still have some ability to fly, so long as they have time to take off and a clear runway. Keep them happy and content and they won’t go far.

Geese are adaptable to a wide range of conditions, but not intensive industrial barns. As industrial methods came to dominate poultry keeping, geese declined. Few people think to roast a goose for a festive meal. They are easy to cook, with some preparation. By piercing the skin, the layer of fat will run off into the roasting pan, naturally basting the bird. American consumers now eat an average of less than a third of a pound of goose annually. Let’s improve those figures!