Alternatively, I had a rooster and chickens who provided fresh eggs and manure for the garden along with bees who provided gallons of honey and kept the many fruit trees pollinated and producing good crops and gardens of salad greens and berries. I was attempting to live as natural and simple a life as possible, even giving up electric power and all that it brought in its train, living instead with candles and a wood range with a wetback for hot water, two gas rings, lots of books and a battery powered radio. I set traps in the local bush reserve to catch possums to help feed my carniverous pets, cured their skins and made slippers etc and learned to use and grow native flax to weave traditional bags and other articles to sell at the local craft market which luckily was a large popular event held once a month. I had several friends and aquaintances who taught me much of what I needed to know and read books to learn the rest.
Although the experiment was largely successful, I became an oddity in the suburbs, my lifestyle out of step with a new neighbour who quite justifiably complained about the rooster's nocturne. He was loud at the wrong time and had to go. I decided that it was time for me to go too.
So after much searching, I bought 50 acres of land in the Far North. It is very rough steep land, mostly bush (native forest) and scrub (old pasture recolonised by introduced privet and weeds) about 7 acres was waist-high ungrazed pasture, 5 acres of which is fenced off as a large paddock. A stream runs down from the top boundary through the bush to a small pond in a grove of eucalyptus and bamboo near the road at the front. Very beautiful.
View down the river valley
View across horse paddock and valley to far ridge
Garage and beehives with view to top boundary marked by pines on ridge.
House and garden with geese at work
Stream with bamboo and eucalyptus trees
The house was surrounded by one-metre-high kikuyu grass, an extremely tough South African import, a pest to some, with rampant growth and the ability to climb and smother bushes and small trees. This posed a problem of lawns which are an essential firebreak between house and bush. The uneven ground made lawnmowing very difficult, so after cutting it down with a sickle and mowing it several times, I decided that something that eats grass made sense. "Geese eat lots of grass and aren't overly destructive of gardens or trees" said an article I'd recently read. Sounds perfect! So I purchased 4 geese, 2 males and 2 females to mow the lawn. As I was leaving the previous owner muttered "I don't think you know what you're getting yourself into". She was so right!
Geese can be some of the most quarrelsome creatures I have ever met, except, maybe for some people. But they can also be the most peaceful. It quite often all depends on the seasons.
Before beginning this article about geese. I would like to explain my approach to the subject of anthropomorphism (humans giving other creatures human attributes). I've always felt a close affinity with nature, and can spend hours at a time observing plants and animals without getting bored. I have come to the conclusion that the reason I do this is the same as our ancient ancestors, an endless field study, ultimately to understand our own nature and behaviour by observing others. Hence all those old stories about animals who have human qualities. If we objectify others we can never really know them. We are all sentient beings but focused on different things.
I cannot help but notice the similar drives that all creatures share. The drive to survive, to have a place in the world, to be accepted in their own society and to breed successfully. All of us, both animal and plant. are programmed by nature. But only humans seem to be able to contemplate the past and future as well as the present and ask why, how etc and make up explanations, some better than others, about the world. My feeling is that we humans have a lot more in common with the other creatures than our vanity allows us to admit. I can see direct parallels that allow me to accept the underlying primitive needs that motivate much of our behaviour, the deeper needs that are often hidden from ourselves as we complicate rather than contemplate our existence. Maybe, if we understood and accepted these primitive needs we would find life a lot less confusing and angst-ridden. Anyway, enough of that, on with the goose story.
There is a lot I don't know about geese. I have read a few books and articles but they were mainly about fattening them up for the table. One excellent book is The Year of The Greylag Goose by Conrad Lorenz. He lived with a wild colony of geese in Switzerland and studied their behaviour. Nearly everything I have learned is from observation of my own geese and my conclusions may not be very scientific.
Although geese are considered a primitive species by some they, like other birds, have many remarkable qualities which are still not fully understood, like their navigational and high altitude flying ability, for instance. Some of my geese occasionally fly but never very far, they are domesticated and have lost their migratory instincts. I feed them corn and homemade bread every couple of days mainly to keep them close by so they mow the lawn around the house. If I stopped they would probably wander away eventually, as they are free to roam and a farm fence is no serious obstacle for a goose.
Their social habits I find fascinating. Being highly sociable herd or flock animals they spend very little time alone. Within this colony which now numbers sixteen the individuals have formed into smaller units, nuclear families which maintain a more intimate social life between themselves, slightly separate from and often rather antagonistic towards the others. These family units sometimes wander off from each other during the day, but reunite in the evening with characteristic squabbling as they choose a spot and settle down to roost for the night.
These dynamics change with the seasons, and at breeding time family bonds loosen as the young mature geese tentatively leave the parents to find a mate and start their own family. Because I have stopped them increasing lately by eating all their eggs I'm not sure what will happen to their social structure, whether it will reach some stability due to their usually monogomous habits or not. I'll have to wait and see.
Tai-Chi on the lawn
There is, of course, the pecking order that has to be constantly maintained or changed providing lively social relationships between individuals and families to determine everyone's place in the order. Goose politics I call it. It can be extremely loud at times, way above safe decibels for humans. Each goose has its own individual cry and vocal style which is recognisable, ranging from ear-splitting shriek, high pitched yapping, low gutteral bark to the fog horn which can be heard a kilometre away. This last one is used freely when one gets lost, which is quite frequent, lost usually being merely out of sight. All together, they can sound rather like an out of tune orchestra playing at full volume or a loud city street full of cars honking their horns. At other times peace reigns, all is quiet and they appear as the most exquisite garden ornaments. Often there is just the contented soft grunting as they eat their way across the landscape, sometimes for hours, even days at a time. Then inevitably things get louder again as squabbles break out and everyone joins the argument. Sometimes I have to drive them away from the house so I can hear anything. Strangely, none of the books I read about geese made much, if anything of the noise they make. I guess they assumed I already knew, but I didn't and it was quite a shock!
THE FIRST FOUR
The original four were siblings, offspring from a part Sebastapol male and a Pilgrim female. Two of them, one of each sex, exhibited smooth Pilgrim plumage. The other two had loose curling feathers "frilly pants" typical of the Sebastapol breed. The males are white, the females retain similar colouring to their ancestor the Greylag goose.
I named them Sebastapol, Gurtie, Marilyn, and Mr Bumble. Sebastapol was the dominant male, very posessive of the females, noisily proclaiming himself leader and using menacing gestures to keep Mr Bumble in his place. Marilyn was the pilgrim female. She was very popular with the males who often fought for her attention. She used her popularity to keep Gurtie in her place, the males were both besotted by her and would even chase Gurtie a short distance away to please Marilyn. Gurtie, the Sebastapol female was less attractive to the males who often ignored her when Marilyn was around. Gurtie accepted her lesser status gracefully and did not challenge Marilyn. Mr Bumble, the Pilgrim male, was the military wing. He usually walked at the rear keeping an eye out for possible threats, chasing the cat, a wild pheasant, other small birds, anything that might be a threat to the troupe. He injured his foot once on some half-buried barbed wire from a fallen fence and became quite lame, developing bumblefoot, large painful lumps on the sole of his foot. But he eventually healed completely and now can run as fast as ever.
I have kept and bred from these four geese for several years now and have sixteen altogether. I had reservations about inbreeding siblings, which is not considered wise, but decided the two parents being of different stock would ensure a large enough gene pool to avoid weak offspring.
Sebastapol with Marilyn
Having recently lain for several hours watching shining frogs frollicking and mating in sun-drenched pools from recent rain near a west coast beach, I was horrified to be presented with a decomposing frog's corpse to dissect at zoology class at university in order to study them. I felt guilty and sad as I carved up this tiny delicate human-like creature that had died miserably for my benefit. I knew then that this was not the way for me to learn about frogs. Needless to say I soon dropped out of university. I'm not suited to formal academic education, but my natural curiosity and practical nature seem to sustain my interest in learning.
My real joy comes from watching living creatures, especially in a relatively natural environment doing their own thing, and sometimes hunting with a camera. I have trapped and killed opossums, which are abundant and can wreck a small orchard in a matter of days, skinned them and cured their pelts, marvelled at their beautiful, muscular bodies and intricate organs, then cooked and eaten them, but I must admit I didn't really enjoy doing it although I know it's natural and would do it if I had to. I just wanted the experience of providing for myself, as a hunter gatherer.
So I will omit to tell you the length of a goose's intestine, if you wish to know that you can find out elsewhere. I've never killed one or dissected one and have no desire to do so. I'm happy to leave that to someone else. It's not that I don't want to know, but its already been done a thousand times, why not use someone else's data. I much prefer to see creatures alive rather than dead.
Geese graze almost exclusively on grass and pasture plants, much like sheep, spending several hours a day wandering back and forth, bills slightly angled, snatching the tips of the grass and cutting it off cleanly. Often they fan out and cover quite a broad area and if they are close you can hear the rhythmic tearing of grass.
They also love to spend time in waterways, having widened the stream and pond on my place quite noticably by chewing and tugging at plants growing on the sides. Geese have been used to keep waterways open for centuries as they clear away excess growth that would otherwise eventually choke the flow of water. Because they stir up the fine mud on the bottom which is carried along by the current, the depth is maintained or very gradually increased and the bottom does not become stagnant when the water flow is very slow. Having clear drains is essential here as seasonal rains can cause severe flooding.
The only time of the year that geese eat anything other than plants is in late summer when they can be seen hunting grasshoppers, grabbing large numbers of them off the long grass, their movements more like herons stabbing at fish than grazers. They seem totally absorbed in this activity, behaving more as individuals than as a group, often wandering a long distance out of sight from one another looking for their prey in the long grass. They also occasionally eat spiders who happen to live within reach near the ground or under and around the house or other buildings.
Another favoured activity is dabbling in mud, especially in winter when heavy rain has left pools of water. They work enthusiastically in these, digging their beaks into the soil and working the hole they have made into mud by rapidly sucking water and soil in and out of their bills, mixing it together into fine mud. They appear like jackhammers, heads down, their whole bodies shaking rapidly. An enthusiastic dabbler can create quite a large mud hole fairly quickly and they often like to return to the same excavation. Other geese will also work the same hole when no one is using it. It pays to take note of the location of these as they can be nasty traps for unwary humans. They range in depth from a few inches to over a foot, and are sometimes hard to see if the ground is generally muddy. Luckily there are seldom more than two or three at any one time.
The sides of their beaks have a row of small teeth carved into bony protrusions along the inside, not unlike a rasp, which enables them to chew through quite tough materials like tree bark and achieve a very tight grip on objects. This ability is often used in aggressive behaviour when feathers are sometimes ripped out from the rear end of a fleeing rival, or to get a good grip while fighting to establish dominance in the pecking order.
If given the opportunity geese will spend some time in water every day. They are very clean animals and love to bathe and preen themselves. Bathing can take a few minutes or up to an hour if the water is clean and plentiful and there are no others waiting to use it. Of course the more dominant ones will get in first and take their time leaving the water somewhat murky for the lesser ones, except when they're in a sociable mood and then Mum, Dad and the kids all pile in for a communal bath. These occasions can be quite tranquil for a while but eventually a tight squash leads to jostling and squabbling, like kids in the back seat of a car.
In large ponds where there is plenty of space they all bathe together, but keep a short distance between each family group. After each bath they will spend up to half an hour preening themselves. They have a grease gland at the base of the back, above the tail which they rub with their bills and then distribute over their feathers, taking much care on the chest, back and wings. This waterproofs their entire bodies so water just beads off leaving them completely dry in even the most torrential downpour. They also preen to remove any loose feathers and smooth them down to keep out the cold and wind. During the annual moult after the breeding season they preen frequently and the lawn becomes strewn with hundreds of old feathers which the wind picks up to blow around like a small snowstorm. Many sparrows descend to retrieve them and often collect mouthfuls at a time to line their nests. This is Flame taking a bath.
Geese never seek shelter in a storm, even during a lightning storm they will stay out in the open, standing as tall as possible, almost on tiptoes, heads pointing upwards towards the driving rain. Even quite young chicks will adopt this pose, the harder the rain or hail the taller the stance in order to deflect the force of it.
Geese don't really sleep, they snooze. It is nearly impossible to sneak up to a goose. They take several naps during the day but keep an eye open most of the time just in case or if they hear a strange sound. They usually sleep at night, possibly because their night vision is not good, but on full moon with a clear sky they can be active all night. I read that in places where they are hunted their sleeping patterns vary according to the most dangerous time of the day, they stay awake when they are most likely to be hunted. Wild geese often sleep in the middle of lakes and come ashore to graze in the day or at night when its safest.
The thing I like about goosefights is that there are never any serious injuries. It looks like a combination of Sumo wrestling and boxing using wings instead of arms. The fight starts with both geese facing off, then one lunges forward and grabs onto the other's wing near the shoulder. The other instantly responds in the same way so that they are locked together, chests hard up against each other, pushing as hard as they can with their feet to force the other backwards, Sumo wrestling style. Then the wings are opened, pulled back and brought forward with great force, just like a punch only both arms at once. Both geese stand on tiptoes digging their claws for traction, and whacking each other as hard as they can. Usually one is slightly stronger at the start but this only makes for a more determined opponent and both can drive each other back and forth as they try to gain ground. Sometimes the force of their wings hitting can lift both off the ground momentarily.
If one is obviously too strong the other breaks off the fight by letting go and turning tail and fleeing, the victor giving chase for a short distance before returning to his chosen mate calling triumphantly while others of his clan gather round him admiringly. The whole group gets very excited at these bouts and cheer both combatants on with great enthusiasm, unless they drag on too long whereby the crowd can go to look for a snack, keeping an eye on the fight ready to congratulate the final winner. Even the loser is greeted by his own team, especially if he tries to impress the ladies by pretending to be the victor. In the heat of the fight the females don't just watch from the rear, they often push right to the front and cheer the loudest as they seem to know that the whole spectacle has been for their benefit. It all bears an uncanny resemblance to a prize fight.
I was hoping to post a video but being on dial-up, I had to resort to composing these pictures from the video clips.
MATING AND NESTING
The first breeding season was extremely noisy and chaotic, lots of arguments between the females and all-out fighting between Sebastapol and Mr Bumble. The males often challenged each other for leadership (or for Marilyn) in long hard battles but Mr Bumble was usually the first to break, Sebastapol loudly proclaiming victory and leading the females to the bath while Mr Bumble resumed his role of guard at the rear.
Mating commences with the male entering the water, dipping and raising his head to invite the female to join him, which she does, dipping and raising her head in time with his. He then manouvers alongside her, grasps her on the back of the neck, mounts her rather clumsily and pushes his tail down to facilitate the mating. She is pushed underwater momentarily, weighed down by a now semiconscious male who utters gutteral cries of orgasmic ecstacy. Its all over in about 10 seconds. He then rolls off, exits the bath and stands nearby preening himself with an air of satisfaction. The female meanwhile stays in the water, bathes thoroughly then exits and preens herself for about 10 minutes before resuming to graze or sitting down for a short nap. Thus is the typical sex life of the geese.
About to do it
Looking for a good nesting site
The nesting site is chosen individually by each female. She takes a few weeks to select a suitable location, wandering over an area of several acres, usually with her mate and another male rival and sometimes juvenile offspring in attendance. The males show an intense interest in all her movements, often chewing off long leaves of grass (including my irises) and laying them carefully down beside themselves in mock nest-building gestures, maybe to stimulate the female to build her nest. Back and forth they go, often revisiting a prospective site several times until satisfied.
Good views and morning sun seem to appeal to geese, but not always. They can also venture into fairly dense scrub, some near the house, others several hundred meters away, depending on their level of trust in humans. The hand-reared ones nest closer to the house. It is important for the female to feel comfortable with the chosen location as she will be stuck there for about a month and may prefer to use the same nest site year after year. Heated arguments can ensue when one female encroaches on another's site or tries to nest too close. Sometimes a deafening all-out war can rage between two families over a favoured nesting location.
Eventually eggs are laid, one egg every two days, about the size of three or four hens eggs. This takes a few weeks with much bathing and mating between eggs, much fighting among the males and almost constant cackling from all concerned. Even with all the doors and windows shut (it was, thankfully, very cold outside) the racket is almost unbearable at first, but after a while it becomes background din, like living in a noisy street.
Gathered goose eggs with brown hen's egg.
Then all goes strangely quiet. The females spend all day on their nests, getting off once in the morning for a quick bath and a meal, snatching frantically at the grass, a noisy trot around the house, a quick plunge in the bath, preening briefly and literally running back to the nest. Then total quiet 'till late afternoon, (feeding time) for another quick break, all in a hurry with noisy males in attendance.
The males sit for hours, waiting, quietly, preening and eating a little then after a barely audible signal from the nest, suddenly erupting into a deafening chorus, calling loudly and running to greet the females, who have carefully covered their eggs with grass and downy feathers before emerging for 5 minutes or so. This goes on for about a month.
HATCHING AND RAISING YOUNG
When the first breeding season came around the geese were only a year old and showed no inclination to mate. I more or less let them do their own thing and merely observed. The second year they mated, or should I say Sebastapol mated with both females. So the first generation, Ping, Bling and Wing were probably Sebastapol's.
All the geese become quite aggressive once the eggs are laid and approaching them is a bit nerve-wracking. Their eyes have a wild stare and no longer show any recognition of my benign intentions. The males stand guard near the nests and greet me with much hissing and threatening gestures, all tameness gone, ready to attack. The females also hiss with swaying necks while flattening themselves on their nests. They remind me of snakes ready to strike. When I turn away the males, emboldened by my retreat, charge up behind me. If I start to run away they will give chase and actually attack, grabbing the backs of my legs. Luckily I wear long rubber boots and thick trousers which make these attacks amusing rather than painful. They soon release their hold if I stop, show no alarm and no reaction.
Closing in for attack
Because they had chosen to nest so near the house beside the driveway, I had to pass by them several times a day and sure enough after several days I could stay calm when walking among them. This seemed to prevent actual attacks although not the aggressive postures. Some of Gerties' eggs were infertile and two exploded under her, covering her underside, the other eggs and the nest with a putrid yellow slime. The smell was disgusting and she stood a few feet from the nest unwilling to resume sitting, so when she went off to have a bath I removed them, washed them and replaced them, cleaning up the nest as best I could by removing the broken eggshells and laying fresh grass over the sticky mess. This worked well until a day later another egg exploded and she gave up sitting completely. The infertile eggs were probably due to youthful inexperience, enthusiasm rather than accuracy in mating technique.
Ping and Bling were hatched in a cardboard box with a thick towel over a hot waterbottle after I listened to the eggs that I had removed and heard a faint, hesitant tapping coming from within. I knew they must be very close to hatching and sure enough after a few days of constant warmth and regular handling, both eggs developed cracks at one end. After much waiting and a little help from me, picking off some of the cracked shell, two heads on long necks emerged, one from the end of each egg, looking remarkably like twin ETs. They greeted me, wide eyed with green-yellow slicked back feathers and constant peeping as their swivelling heads followed me round the room. I found out later that the mother takes baths at least twice a day to keep the shells moist, making them softer and easier to break out of. These two were trapped for a couple of days in their rock hard eggs with just their heads poking out until I lost patience and carefully broke them out by hand. By this time their feathers had dried and fluffed out making them appear larger and very cute. So in spite of an earlier decision not to interfere, I had.
Two days old
A few weeks later
I kept them in a large cardboard box lined with newspaper, a hottie wrapped in a towel at one end for sleeping and a sprinkling of grass covering the other end with water and food dishes in the corner. I noticed that they learned to drink water the next day, throwing their heads back to let the water trickle down their throats with such enthusiasm that they toppled over several times before they became better balanced and steadier on their feet. It was hard to get them to sleep until I learned that they liked their hottie quite hot. They would sprawl on top of it with a flap of towel over their heads, often with their legs sticking straight out behind, like miniature sunbathers. Food consisted of wholemeal bread soaked in milk and a few chicken pellets also soaked, with an assortment of grass stalks to chew on. Not the most natural diet for a goose, but they both ate with great gusto and both thrived, having little outings from the box, running around the kitchen and living room and tugging at everything that looked interesting, including my hair, furniture coverings and the carpet. After several weeks I realised they would soon have to move outside.
Protective enclosure for orphans
Meanwhile Marilyn had hatched four eggs. All the geese gathered around the nest, craning their necks to see their new family, watching the small tufts of greenish yellow fluff appearing and disappearing from around the mothers underbelly as she moved, shifted around and resettled to reveal her chicks. As they hatched she moved the empty shells to one side and extended her wings very slightly to allow them to crawl out from under her and nestle right up under her wings. Their muffled peeping was answered by the seemingly mesmerised adults with soft clucking. This went on for a couple of days. By the third day they were standing up and a day or two later the chicks were walking and pulling at bits of straw. Next they were taken out on a short excursion, only a few metres from the nest, close by Marilyn who was surrounded on all sides by her protective adult retinue. Gertie, now an aunt rather than a mother watched the chicks with an urge to get closer but was kept at bay by hissing Marilyn. Thus the troupe ventured further each day, until it all went wrong.
They were taking rather long trips, too long for the chicks, who were often trailing behind, caught up in the long grass, frantically peeping all the while. The adults were not waiting for them and so I retrieved them, hopelessly lost deep in the undergrowth and returned them several times. Anyway the outcome was not good as I could not follow them around all day although I did for much of it. The chicks were being marched to death, and over the next week one by one they disappeared. I spent hours searching for them, even at night with a torch, when I realised they were missing, but to no avail.
I can only put this odd behaviour down to inexperience on the part of the parents who seemed to be driven by some urge to travel cross-country. The land here is not really ideal for geese, especially uneven, steep and much of it overgrown with open drains and ditches and large holes leading underground, all either formed naturally or dug to cope with the often torrential rain that races down the mountain and causes spectacular flooding of the river valley. Much of this terrain, except for around the house, requires much effort, baby geese need to be really fit to survive.
I later found out that geese make lousy parents for the first few years of breeding, but that first year I intervened and took the last remaining chick from the inept parents as I could not bear to watch the inevitable. The last chick, a female named Wing, was introduced to Ping and Bling and I became Mother Goose.
Ping and Bling
As numbers gradually increased I observed some possible similarities and differences between geese and human family groups. Wild geese apparently behave very differently to domestic geese and my interference is bound to have had an effect on group dynamics. But the behaviour I have observed in individuals and families must have some basis in their intrinsic nature. Sometimes at certain times of the year the group seems to merge into a harmonious whole with almost no bickering, but this is only a brief respite.
Basic societal structure consists of adult pairs forming nuclear family units within the group as a whole, allowing unpaired siblings or younger geese to play a role in raising young. The males especially cooperate in this way often forgetting past battles in order to carry out parental duties.
Each season as new pairs form the basic structure is maintained except there are more nuclear units. These units seldom combine and males can even fight over custody of mothers and chicks if they have failed to produce live offspring of their own or have lost them due to misadventure or carelessness. The females on the other hand, unlike most human females, seem more possessive of their own chicks and quite hostile towards others that get lost, driving them away with nasty pecks if they approach or try to join in. The only time the females seem to get on is in mother-daughter relationships and even these can fall apart at sexual maturity, the daughter sometimes vying with the mother for the same male's attention if he is not the male who raised her.
It all gets rather complicated but there seems to be a natural tendency for females to, if possible, avoid mating with their own siblings or immediate family members if they grow up together. However, parent-offspring pairings are more likely than sibling ones. My interference by removing chicks and then later reintegrating them back into the flock played havoc with their recognition of close family and has led to pairings that may not have occurred otherwise. It reminds me of similar situations in human society where through estrangement or adoption, siblings or parents and biological children can develop strong attractions to each other when reunited, attractions which may not have developed had family members grown up together. All this is speculation of course as all the geese in the group are very closely related.
So ends my first post. It's rather long and I have been on a steep learning curve trying to edit it, having inadvertently deleted then reposted many photos while trying to get the spacing right. I will feature the individual characters in this goose saga separately in future posts.