Saturday, December 13, 2008

Six Geese A Laying

Geese certainly were part of English and French life in the 16th century and long before. Geese have been hunted and tamed and domesticated since the early days of settled agricultural life.

Most modern domestic geese are descended from the European Greylag Goose, which still ranges across most of Europe and Asia. They have lived closely with humans for centuries. Even as little as a century ago, they were maintained as semi-wild livestock in England. Villagers let their geese forage and live on the River Cam. The geese spent the spring and summer on the village green, then migrated to the river for the winter. In February, the owners would call their geese, which responded to their voices and returned home to nest and rear their young. Those offspring were a significant contribution to the villagers’ income. Those Geese A-Laying were valued not for the eggs in themselves, but for the prospective birds into which the eggs would hatch. Eggs can also be eaten. Some modern breeds such as the China goose have been selected for laying, bringing their production of eggs up to 70 or more annually. The eggs are reputed to be superior for baking. The albumen is thicker than that of chicken eggs, making it unsuitable for whipping into meringue.

Geese typically choose their own mates and mate for life, although a gander may be willing to mate with more than one goose. They are good at brooding their own eggs and both parents enjoy raising the goslings. They will also adopt other chicks. They love having a family. This pair of Cotton Patch geese belonging to Dr. Tom Walker of Texas protect their goslings. One is out from under the mother and the father watches over it.

Those geese, through domestication and selective breeding, became the hardy Gray Goose. In France, pate de foie gras is a traditional food. Breeds in which the sexes have different plumage from each other are called auto-sexing. The males are solid color and the females saddlebacked, with contrasting color across their backs. Very ancient lines of geese include this trait, often tracing it back to locations where Vikings landed.

This gaggle of Saddleback Cotton Patch geese belonged to Jess Owens of Union County, Arkansas in the 1950s. Dr. Walker, who has championed the recovery of Cotton Patch geese, shared this photo with me. These geese were used regularly to clean cotton fields of grass and weeds. The Cotton Patch is a traditional American breed, very similar to the geese in this carol.

A group of geese on the ground is a gaggle. In flight, they are a flock.

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