by Arielle Illia
Adding Guard Geese to the Homestead
As we drove to pick up these two goslings, I sat there a little uneasy on the passenger's side contemplating if this was the best decision for us at this point in our lives. We had discussed adding a guard goose to the homestead but did not pursue the idea beyond the mere thought. We love each and every critter we acquire and for us animal ownership is a serious matter. Research prior to making a choice is not atypical for our decision making process, however this was one of those times we did not plan ahead. As a pair of light blue eyes peered at me over the box's edge, I knew at that moment we had made the right decision.
If you have ever been around young poultry or waterfowl they are no disappointment in the cuteness department, they have a characteristic fuzz or fluff shall I say, that is ever so soft and these goslings were no different. On that ride home they kept glancing at me. It was evident they were imprinted on humans. Until my recent web research I had not realized just how strong geese imprint. What does that word imprint mean, you might find yourself asking. Well you see, when a gosling first hatches they do not automatically know what species they are, there is a short time frame after hatching that they use visual and environmental clues to identify or imprint on their parent. Generally this happens to be the first large creature they see. This imprint is lifelong and these goslings never did meet their true mom and dad (who were happily kept in a backyard garden oasis by their owners). These goslings were only ever introduced to humans and other gosling siblings. Imprinting humans on geese is common as well as desirable in order to have pleasant day to day transactions between humans and geese but before I jump too far ahead, let me explain what prompted us to pick up this adorable little pair.
Although unfortunate, it is the reality none the less, we recently lost a young chicken to an aerial predator (presumably a hawk or juvenile eagle). Our chickens are eight weeks of age and have been enjoying outdoor freedom within the confines of an electric fence perimeter. Now a full size Icelandic chicken may be comparable to the size of a Rhode Island Red or an Easter Egger but they are still quite small as of right now. We know letting them outside is risky business and only feel comfortable doing so when we can also be outside with them. This set up was working until the unthinkable occurred. Never having a chicken fall victim to an aerial attack, I have to tell you that was the last worry in our minds. Four legs were expected, not talons.
On this occasion, the chickens were outside as usual, we were working in the garden and around the yard that day. Moments prior to the incident we made the decision to step into the house and shortly thereafter Eric exclaimed something. We both darted outside by instinct to try and attempt to stop the attack but we were too late, both of our hearts sank in realization of the event that just occurred.
In our time at our previous homestead we were fortunate to lose very few birds to predators after raising several hundred. On the rare chance this happened we usually were not present for the attack. The sense of responsibility to provide all of our animals with the best life possible, including their diet and access to outdoors is strong for us but there is also another feeling of obligation to be present for them, which we know is not always possible. I still remember when we made the choice for Eric to leave his work and manage the farm, it was an incredible relief of morning chores for myself but also such peace of mind when I left for work knowing he was there to care for the animals and they did not have to fend for themselves.
We are constantly striving to achieve a high quality of life for our animals, so when I have to accept that the choices we make as to how we keep them can, and ultimately has, led to their demise I can't help but feel badly about the situation (as I suppose I should). With that being said, this is real life and it happens. If we can take anything positive away from these incidents it would be the opportunity to learn from them.
It may come as no surprise, that after raising chickens in both covered runs or mobile tractors and in the idyllic free range scenario, I was happiest and felt the birds were the happiest when they were allowed to roam freely. They ate more of what they were intended to eat, got plenty of exercise and we benefited from more nutritious eggs as a result. After careful consideration of this landrace for their foraging ability and readiness to go broody and therefore raise their young, we felt reassured by the Icelandics renewabilty. We anticipated losses by predators and culling but this loss was early on and we generally aren't the type of folks to sit around and not take action. Since we want to decrease the likelihood that it will reoccur, the most obvious solution for us is to restrict outdoor access until the chickens have grown larger, however this is easier said than done. They are wild and thoroughly enjoy their days scratching in the forest. They are not the appropriate chicken if only provided minimal access outdoors and truly thrive when they can do what they do best. And so right about now is when the serious goose conversation began.
Why geese you ask? The first reason being the strong imprinting of geese as mentioned before and their natural ability to be guardians. If they are raised with a flock from a young age, they will protect the flock once older, in fact this is a common way people are able to free range birds without losses to aerial predators. There are even certain breeds of geese that serve as better guard geese than others, such as the Tufted Roman Goose. Regardless of any one particular goose breed, most geese have a notable reputation for their honking, it is this loud sound behavior that lends them to be desirable guard animals. Geese do a wonderful job at staying alert and are able to pick up on subtle differences around them. When they notice something new or unusual, they will announce it. This honking can be just enough time to alert the flock and allow them to run for cover if necessary to evade a predator or strong enough of a deterrent to prevent the attack entirely. We are relying on their guardian nature to not only protect the flock but also alarm us if anything is askew.
Finding goslings locally was a task and we were fortunate to find breeds that are ideal for the guard goose position in Alaska. The father is a Chinese gander, a recommended breed for guarding, and the mom is an African and Embden cross. For optimal flock protection, a sole guard goose is recommended to avoid possible distractions. When you have a pair of geese they will bond with one another and that can alter their efficacy guarding the flock. We purchased two since that was the owner's request and are content with this decision because they do seem to bond with one another in a way that would most likely not be comparable to that with a bird of another species. Although this may be the very thing you would want to avoid, we still believe these goslings will have no issues sounding the alarm when the time comes (and heck when is two goslings not better than one?).
The introduction process was simple, night one the goslings slept in a large wire cage (that has been proven useful numerous times before,) in the corner of the chicken coop. We released them the the next day, they explored their new home and established hierarchy within the flock. After another day they were completely settled in. Although it is clear the two week old goslings are the boss in the coop largely due to their size when compared to our young chickens, they all do quite well in the coop together and have no issues sharing out of the same food dishes.
I know the term "guard goose" may be inappropriate when they truly could not fend off a large animal, however I think most would agree their attitude will discourage most critters. As of now our biggest concern is aerial predators and small land predators since our electric fence is a powerful enough deterrent for large animals. It will be a long road ahead of us until the geese will be old enough to protect the flock but in the meantime we have added a scarecrow and have plans to add aviary netting over an exposed portion of the run. In fact, at this very moment, I am outside writing next to the chicken run to allow them the outside freedom they deserve with the protection I so duly feel inclined to provide.