Our Adventures Raising Geese
We all have a clear understanding of life and death, and we seem to acknowledge that at some point this life ceases. Animal stewardship is generally a part of homesteading or operating a farm, whether it be a full scale farm or a smaller hobby farm. Animals are constantly born, raised, harvested and/or sold. They also die from unforeseen circumstances and old age.
Hunting is another way we can get closer to our food and helps us appreciate life and death because we witness it first hand. There is a loss of life in trade for sustenance.
So how does that have to do with our geese?
Well throughout raising them there came a point where we realized they weren't able to do what we had hoped and that's how we came to be at the crossroads of whether we would be processing or rehoming our geese.
You may be wondering why we acquired geese in the first place. In all honestly we did not plan for waterfowl in our lives again after raising Khaki Campbells previously. Although their needs are similar to chickens and they are often housed together, we weren't overly fond of one crucial component of their care. Water, lots and lots of fresh water.
Ducks especially need water with food so they can clean their bills during eating. I could argue a small pond or kiddie pool is almost a necessity for raising healthy, well balanced waterfowl. So when purchasing geese we had concerns that meeting their water needs, primarily during winter, would be a battle for us.
We had done quite a bit of research on geese as a solution to the hawk issue our chickens were experiencing. There is vast information that tells us if raised correctly geese can effectively be guardians for chickens. We had tried numerous ways to prevent hawk attacks but very few seemed to make a difference. We settled on getting geese, or shall I say just one goose.
Being in Alaska, our choices were limited and shipping just one goose was not really an option, so we turned to online ads. It was late in the season and young geese were not easy to come by, especially a breed we were looking for. We located two week old goslings relatively close by and made arrangements to pick them up.
Now we were only going to add one goose to our homestead, however this owner required we purchased two goslings for companionship. We knew that seemed like that wasn't the right first step for our scenario but we proceeded anyway with the thought that we could make it work.
Once we returned home with our goslings, we immediately introduced them to the chickens and for the next 5 months our chickens and geese were together all of the time. Initially they got along pretty well, the geese established hierarchy and from there feeding or living in close quarters was never an issue.
They were adorable as ever from the start, and seemed like mini T-Rexes compared to our chickens who were nearing 3 months at the time. They ate the same fermented grains, seeds, and peas we fed to the flock. I added a fresh water bowl with greens for them daily that they loved eating from and of course swimming in. One of the goslings loved swimming the most. We also added a little ramp so they could come and go into the coop. At this young age they were still fairly clumsy but in a matter of a few weeks they were able to jump and move quite well.
It's worth noting, ducks and geese grow fast, very fast.
In fact, it is common to decrease the protein level in their feed around six weeks of age to 16 percent protein rather than 20 percent for chicks. If they grow too quickly they can develop a condition called angel wing, where the last joint of their wing(s) twist as they are developing causing their feathers to splay out and away from their body rather than laying flat, and thus permanently damaging the way their wings appear and function.
Around 8 weeks of age we noted the larger gosling was exhibiting this so we added corn and alfalfa pellets to their feed which immediately addressed the issue and their wings continued to develop correctly. You can bandage their wings as well but we have found these are difficult to get ducks and geese to keep on, whereas a diet change early enough will prevent and fix the issue.
As the goslings continued to grow, their down feathers were slowly replaced with their adult feathers. Between the two geese, there was hardly any difference in their feather pattern. Sexing geese by feather color is not the best method and can only reliably be used for certain breeds, ours were Embden/African/Chinese.
Something that remained relatively unchanged from the day we brought them home was their behavior. The largest gosling was the most friendly and the one that liked to swim more, this one also nibbled a lot. The other gosling never approached us but stayed nearby the larger sibling and did not nibble. I previously read that nibbling is more common in females so proceeded to think think that was the case. The goslings were also hatched a few days apart so there was a size difference between them.
When they were three to four months of age, voice changes, beak development and a few other subtle changes became noticeable. The larger of the geese had bigger feet and a knob forming on their beak. The biggest difference was in their honks, one became a loud robotic sounding honk and the other stayed relatively quiet in comparison. This was when we knew we had a gander and a goose. Gander is the name for a male goose and Goose is the proper name for a female goose.
Undercarriage is also another way to tell if you have a female or male but in our case the gander actually had somewhat of an undercarriage while the goose did not. Hence why multiple characteristics help determine sex, although voice remains the best way to tell and is usually detectable in waterfowl before plumage differences. The strongest clue to me should have been the male always coming forward first, they are the protectors and it is common for them to go ahead of the female.
Knowing we had a future mating pair we were excited about the possibility of fertilized eggs next spring. However at the same time we both were a little concerned they would now most definitely be starting a family of their own and completely forget about protecting our chickens.
As time went on we found this to be true. Two geese, even two females or males will bond with each other before chickens. We read that going into this but assumed since we were raising them with the chickens at a young age it would work, and I suppose it is obvious now, but it didn't work.
There were probably a few errors we made on our end. From the beginning we tried to minimize human interaction in efforts to keep them less bonded with us. We knew these goslings were born in an incubator and had only met their human owners after hatching, which they saw as Mom and Dad.
Never meeting their true parents, they naturally imprinted on humans. Goslings seen around the time of hatching by other goslings are viewed as siblings. The whole imprinting process is impeccably strong for geese and it is a sensitive time frame that sets them up for the rest of their life. They inherently don't know what they are when they are born, they learn that quickly after hatching. That is how you can train them to believe what they are and work towards protecting chicken flocks.
If we were ever to do this again, we agreed we would start with just one goose egg and we would have a broody hen raise it as if it were their own, that way the gosling viewed the chickens as their parents and their siblings, and when they grew up they would protect what they viewed as their family.
Unfortunately, and understandably so, our geese bonded with one another, and that took priority over our chickens. So although they are great at protecting their family, and naturally serve as great guards (especially the breeds we had), we noticed there was no connection between them and our chickens, similar to an estranged roommate.
I will say their listening skills and ability to determine new or unusual sounds was phenomenal, they often honked in excitement for us or other humans but if a plane flew over or a neighbor's car pulled into their driveway you could see them stop whatever they were doing at that very instant and listen intently. It they viewed something as a threat they would hiss and the gander would lunge and bite if prompted. Sadly our gander had it out for our dog even though we tried to bring him into the run when they were goslings so they were familiar with our pets. That time frame at such a young point in their lives is crucial to introduce them to family members and I now take that far more seriously because an adult gander can cause harm if they wish.
Throughout the summer, the hawk attacks continued and on several occasions the geese didn't do anything when a hawk flew into the run, simply because the hawk was not threatening them. It wasn't an easy decision to come to because we enjoyed raising them but we both decided that going into winter would be hard enough with the chicken flock and adding on the challenge of addressing the water needs of the geese would be an extra burden, especially since they were not able to help us as aerial predator deterrents like we had intended.
I have never been fond to the idea of rehoming or selling our animals, with the main concern being I wouldn't know how they would be cared for once they left. That bothered me, strangely it bothered me more than just dispatching the animal, which also is never an easy task emotionally. It wasn't until we decided to raise pullets in Oregon that I truly understood something.
Being the micromanaging type, I like to provide the best life I can for our animals but on the contrary I usually believe in minimal human interference with how they would live naturally. Ironic, I know. Back to what I was saying, it wasn't until we sold our first pullets in Oregon that my feelings changed about selling livestock. We had two families scheduled on the same day for pick up, one family had a young girl in 4-H and she needed a replacement hen for showing since her hen recently lost feathers on her back from their rooster. We knew we had just the right pullet for her, a very unique Easter Egger that was predominately black with a few gold markings. They were thrilled and so were we. The other family had recently lost two hens from old age, they were 10 years old, I couldn't believe it! They were looking for two new girls as companions for their sole remaining hen.
It was in those very moments that we were talking to them, rounding up the hens and handing them off, that I felt a tremendous sense of relief or rather letting go. Even though I ultimately didn't know what the demise would be for those chickens, they were placed in the hands of caring individuals and that was enough, that was all I needed to be content. This experience really helped me with the undue amount of stress I place on myself trying to control things I shouldn't and from here this process got so much easier.
Needless to say, throughout the period of raising the geese from goslings to young adults we bonded with them. We enjoyed their antics very much and there was not a day they didn't let their presence be known. They honked loudly and unforgivably at the very first sight of a human and would only simmer down after we let them out of the run or fed them. They would follow us around from task to task. The male was fond of swimming and nibbling, he also accepted human hugs and appreciated when he could waddle to the top of our humans bodies in an attempt to reach his throne.
The female typically stood just a wee bit back and would honk in a slightly, off unison melody that sounded oddly reminiscent of Alice In Wonderland's Tweedledee and Tweedledum characters, as if she was jumping up and down in the background saying "Don't forget about me!" Only on a few occasions did she allow a quick pet. I still remember the feeling of sinking my hands into their feathers only to never reach their actual skin. Their wings were astoundingly strong, and their feathers seemed entirely waterproof. They would take flight every morning out of the run and fly forcefully to their favorite "pond", a water body that accumulated in a low lying portion of our front yard that had poor drainage.
Don't even get me started on their necks, my absolute favorite characteristic of geese(!) their long slender necks, which the male often curled back when excited and would elongate to sweep water with on other occasions. They would play in water for hours before finding a spot to tuck their necks in and take a nap. They adored garden treats and could often be found sleeping in the hay we'd lay out under the chicken coop.
Once we knew we weren't keeping the geese we deliberated back and forth on whether to try and rehome them or use them for food. We went with option A but weren't finding someone interested in the pair and just when we thought that we were going to be eating them, we had a gentleman purchase something from us that saw the geese and after learning we weren't keeping them asked if he could talk to his daughter about them who already had several farm animals.
Through a later discussion with the daughter we were lucky enough to find a new home for our friends. I say that because all of our animals are treated as friends regardless of whether we raise them for food. A short time later we said farewell to the geese at their new farm and couldn't have felt more relieved that they would continue to have wonderful lives.
This was another learning lesson for us and an important one to note because many times we expect something of one another, an animal or in general an outcome of a situation, and when that doesn't happen the way we planned, we may be upset but in reality that is what life entails and it will most definitely be a part of what learning to be self sufficient is about. Things are constantly going to be different than what we anticipate and it's a benefit to learn to be flexible and adaptable.
There is no such thing as failure, only a learning experience and many times I think our gung-ho attitude puts us in these positions but I also realize it is this same attitude that has led us to all the things we have tried and the successes we have had as well.
Although we don't have geese anymore I felt this topic shouldn't be overlooked so quickly. Animal ownership is something we take seriously around here and I felt the need to explain why we don't have the webbed creatures on our homestead anymore. Rehoming the geese was the best outcome that could have happened, and reminds me just how much I am thankful for incredible humans out there.
The geese live on another day. Honk, Honk!