Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Animals of Cottage and Castle: Geese

by Katherine Ashe

Why Mother Goose? Well, those who live with geese know them to be thoughtful mothers, solicitous of their young and observant of all that they consider the proprieties. As for telling stories… who can tell?

Geese have been domesticated from wild geese in nearly all parts of the world. They provide food, their eggs and meat are considered a delicacy, their down is used to stuff pillows, mattresses and coverlets, and their wing feathers provided pens for ink for over a thousand years. But they also are raised for their abilities as watch-animals and weed and insect eaters.

In ancient Egypt, the god Amun was believed to have been hatched from a goose egg. And Ptah was sometimes portrayed as a goose. On the other hand, Egyptians were keen observers of goose behavior in its actual manifestations:

“You are worse than the goose of the shore that is busy with mischief. It spends the summer destroying the dates, the winter destroying the seed-grain. It spends the balance of the year in pursuit of the cultivators.” Papyrus Lansing; M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol.2 p.169, with thanks to Andre Dollinger)

“In pursuit of the cultivators…” Flapping their wings as they go, geese can outrun almost anyone and, given their long necks, the fleeing human’s bottom is just the right height for the goose to pinch. Geese as guard animals are quite effective, but they may also chase people just for the fun of it.

The Egyptians were not the only ones to hold geese in reverent regard. The goose was the sacred bird of the Roman goddess Juno, and a flock dedicated to her inhabited the Capitoline Hill. During the first of Rome’s battles with the Gauls, in 390-87 BC, the Roman army was badly defeated and sent a messenger into the besieged city. The Gauls, observing the hidden route taken by the messenger up the cliff of the Capitoline, stealthily followed and would have succeeded in entering and sacking the city but for the furious squawks of alarm set up by Juno’s birds. Ever after, the Capitoline Geese were looked upon as the saviors of Rome.

It was perhaps inevitable that, with the decline of ancient Egypt and Rome, the goose would be demoted strictly to the barnyard, tolerated, even respected, but valued chiefly as the finest of cottagers’ holiday fare. For while Scrooge buys a turkey for the Crachits, it’s a traditional English goose Mrs. Crachit is having roasted for the Christmas feast. While the lord of the manor might celebrate the festive day with roast boar’s head, swan and peacock pie, nearly every cottager and city dweller, however poor, would manage to obtain a Christmas goose.

We’re accustomed to the idea of cottages with hearths and beehive ovens, but most of the poorer folk in Britain’s cities, even if they had hearths, had no ovens. The goose would be gotten pre-cooked or cooked to order by the local baker. Take-out is no modern invention – it was the common food of poor city folk from ancient times.

Geese, domesticated all over the Eurasian continent, have been developed into over a hundred breeds of which the African, American Buff, Chinese, Emden and Toulouse are now the most popular. But the sort common in Britain’s past centuries was what is now known as the Gray Back. Breed names are relatively modern, belonging to the rise of domestic animal breeding societies in the 19th century. The goose of cottage or castle yard was simply the grey goose.


Care of a flock of geese was children’s work – well behaved children who knew better than to tease their charges. It’s possible to befriend geese and have them as protective of you as they are of members of their own flock. So a gentle child might do well tending geese, and even herding them with the aid of a shepherd’s crook to grab the leg of a straying goose and bring it back to its march to market. We had a flock of Toulouse geese so fond of us that, on seeing us they would flap their wings in a wild dash to greet us, then set to work untying our shoelaces. They liked to tug on things and, embarrassingly, were deft at unfastening buttons.

Apart from providing meat and guarding the premises, geese can do a few other chores. The Shetland goose has the particular virtue of eating leeches and thus making ponds safer for livestock and swimmers. Weeder Geese do just that. Set them loose on a lawn and they’ll remove the weeds for you. Any number of breeds will do weeding and the term “weeder goose” is probably modern. If you’re thinking of replacing lawn chemicals with geese – go for it, but do watch for the fertilizing contributions the geese will leave underfoot.

Geese will pair off and mate for life. And parenting is the passion of a goose’s heart. Although they spend most of their time on land, geese must have a body of water in which to mate. Like other birds, they build nests (or make their own improvements to nesting boxes) to shelter their eggs. Geese in Britain lay their eggs in March or April and a goose can incubate 15 or more eggs. Unlike hens, which commonly lay eggs all year but usually one egg every other day, a goose can lay four or more eggs in a day, collecting her clutch fairly quickly. Her brooding time, sitting on them, gently turning them, will last for 28 to 35 days and those goslings that hatch first will have to wait – up to three days -- until mother considers the hatching complete and leads her brood off the nest to eat and drink.

Are geese stupid? Some individuals certainly seem to be. Maggie, a Buff goose of ours, welcomed a skunk into her nest and incubated the skunk as it ate her eggs. She never successfully hatched any offspring. Her gander, Bertie, seemed eager to have progeny. We had a small flock of store-bought fluffy yellow ducklings that had reached sufficient maturity to be set out in a pen of their own in the barn. Maggie and Bertie came in and discovered the ducklings. Bertie rushed to them, bending his neck over them with the greatest of gentle interest. Maggie approached cautiously, took one look at the ducklings, shook her head (truly) and strode away in what seemed very like disgust. Bertie watched her go, gazed back at the fluffy ducklings and slowly dragged himself away from them. And he ignored them ever after. (I relate the facts – if you too had seen this you wouldn’t say I’m anthropomorphizing.)

Unlike wild geese, which migrate great distances and are powerful fliers, mature domestic geese are all but land-bound. A young Toulouse gander joined a flock of migrating Canada Geese and spent the summer with them, but when the Canada Geese flew south for the winter the Toulouse was left by himself, no longer able to fly. (This lone gander, on the Black River in New Jersey, received my flock of six Toulouse females, flapping his wings and treading the water in what looked very like joy. In response, my six geese curved their necks gracefully, formed a line and swam to him. He then led the line of geese up and down the part of the river that was his home.)

Back to Mother Goose. Who or what is she? Charles Perrault in 1695 published his collection of fairy tales under the title, Contes de Ma Mère l'Oye or Tales of My Mother Goose, but Mere l’Oye is mentioned as the already well known purveyor of fairy tales in France as early as 1626. In 1729, an English translation of Perrault's collection was published by Robert Samber under the title Histories or Tales of Past Times Told by Mother Goose. Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Puss in Boots and Little Red Riding Hood are the most familiar of these tales. The origins of the stories Perrault collected are not necessarily French. For example, there are those who hold that Cinderella is really a story of King Lear’s daughter Cordelia. But we stray far from geese in the tempting topic of fairy tales.

Why a goose? A goose will murmur to her goslings and perhaps this suggests to an imaginative mind that she’s telling them stories. The matronly figure wrapped in a shawl and with a tall hat, familiar in children’s book illustrations, suggests the 17th century costume of English Puritans. There is a breed called Pilgrim Geese.

In the pantomime Harlequin and Mother Goose, or, The Golden Egg, performed at the Drury Lane Theater in 1806–07, Mother Goose has magical powers. But these have been in her repertoire at least since Perrault’s collection of stories and rhymes was first published. Here she is in the only old rhyme that is actually about her -- obviously predating the time when geese were bred to gain such weight they could no longer fly:

Old Mother Goose,
When she wanted to wander,
Would ride through the air
On a very fine gander.
Jack's mother came in,
And caught the goose soon,
And mounting its back,
Flew up to the moon.


Katherine Ashe is the author of the Montfort series on the life of Simon de Montfort, the founder of England’s Parliament.


  1. Great! And - anthropomorphising? Only people who forget that we are animals would think like that...

  2. e have a goose (Bernadette) I'd not say she is stupid (far from it!) but she IS silly! I can well see where the phrase "you silly goose" comes from! She#s still only a gosling really - just coming into her first adult plumage now - whenever my daughter picks her up and the dog is near Bernadette squawks like mad- definitely a "Help help help - dog!" shriek, which abruptly ends as soon as Berni hides her head under Kathy's chin or arm. Goose can't see dog, therefore dog has gone!
    That "help, help, help!" cry is very loud though - I can quite see how Juno's geese alerted danger!


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