Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Geese fly through history

Goose history

Geese were domesticated as far back as 5,000 years ago in Egypt, the natural flyway for waterfowl migrating between Africa and Eurasia. The migrating flocks included Asia’s Swan Goose and Europe’s Graylag Goose, the ancestors of modern domestic geese, as well as the Egyptian Goose, technically not a true goose. 
Egyptians netted them as hundreds of thousands settled on the Nile on their migration. From catching wild birds to eat, it’s a short step to keeping them in pens, then breeding them and selecting breeding birds for the qualities most desired. Religiously, the goose was associated with the cosmic egg from which all life was hatched. The god Amun sometimes took the appearance of a goose. Geese were also associated with Osiris and Isis, as a symbol of love.

These Egyptian Geese are from Lou Horton's farm, Acorn Hollow Bantams.

The Romans and Greeks raised geese and honored them. Geese were sacred to Juno, queen of the gods, wife of Jupiter and protector of Rome. White geese lived in her temples. They are said to have saved Rome from an attack by the Gauls around 390 BC by raising the alarm and awakening the guards. They became associated with Juno as symbols of marriage, fidelity and contentment at home. The Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite, was welcomed by the Charities, whose chariot was drawn by geese.

The 4th century AD Christian Saint Martin of Tours is the patron saint of geese, which is the traditionally the feast centerpiece on his day, November 11. The tale is that he did not want to become bishop, so he hid in a barn with the geese. They noisily drew attention to him and he became bishop of Tours in 372. Charlemagne encouraged goose husbandry in his empire, 768-814 AD.

Celtic myths associated the goose with war, and remains of geese are found in warriors’ graves. The migrations of geese suggested their role as messenger of the gods to early cultures. They also symbolize movement and spiritual quest. Their return each year is a reminder to come home.

Mother Goose may have been based on a historic person or may be a mythic character to embody storytelling. The goose is a symbol of communication, expressing themes of human life in legends and tales. The first book of Mother Goose stories was published in Boston in 1786. “The Goose Girl” was included in Grimm’s Fairy Tales in 1815, translated into English in 1884.

As little as a century ago, people in England kept geese in a half-wild state, letting their geese forage and live on the river. The geese spent the spring and summer on the village green, then migrated to the River Cam 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.

Cooking and eating goose

Goose has fallen out of most cooks’ repertoire and few cookbooks even carry advice for cooking it successfully. As a cold weather bird, goose carries a thick layer of fat under its skin. The meat is actually quite lean, and all dark meat. The roasting process produces prodigious fat, inches of it in the roasting pan. Since so few cook them, cooking techniques have lost ground and few people even attempt them. Their fat makes those unfamiliar with them stay away, but their meat is not marbled with fat, as beef is. The fat under the skin acts as a natural basting for roasted goose. Goose grease is an unappreciated oil that can be used in baking. Collect it from the roasting pan and use it throughout the year. NPR commentator Bonny Wolf calls it “the creme de la creme of fat.”

“I am not advocating the daily use of goose fat. I wouldn't, for example, put it on my morning toast,” she said. “It would, however, be delicious.”

This is a goose I roasted  and served to friends who had never eaten goose before. They were delighted!

In the 19th century, every farm raised some geese and the goose was the traditional holiday bird. Contemporary chefs are re-discovering this favored bird on the table. Current USDA statistics show that American consumers eat an average of less than a third of a pound of goose annually.

Commercial geese are produced mainly in South Dakota and California. Commercial producers have their own varieties that they rely on, the ones sold frozen in markets.

Their down and feathers are also valuable goose products. Goose down is the best insulator for clothing and comforters.

Raising geese

A breeder needs to keep at least one family of geese to keep a bloodline intact, without experiencing loss of characteristics or inbreeding. Generations will live together, but geese prefer to mate in pairs, although some are willing to live as trios.

Geese should produce and lay and be fertile. “Around here they burn it off because it gets cold,” said Jim Konecny, president of the International Waterfowl Breeders Association, from his Royal Oaks Farm in Barrington Hills, Illinois. If that weight loss doesn’t happen naturally, reduce feed so that the geese enter breeding season fit and trim.

“If they go into breeding season with a full keel and haven’t burned some of that fat off, they will have fertility problems,” he said.

As waterfowl, geese like water but can manage without it. They do better if they have some access to water, even if it’s only a kiddie pool.

“A nice clean tub of water gets them in the mood and stimulates them to mate,” he said.

Angel wing is a problem that may result from a diet too rich in protein. “It can happen to any breed of goose,” said Konecny. “They are all going to be big birds and they grow fast.”  He reduces protein in the goslings’ diet as soon as blood feathers start coming in, around four to six weeks of age, by putting them out on grass or providing greens in some other way. 

All geese are grazers and prefer to move around on pasture. Konecny’s birds have both pasture and woods to roam. Although some commercial growers claim success with as little as nine square feet per bird, John Metzer of Metzer Farms in California considers that a bare minimum.

“I would like to see at least nine square feet inside and 30 square feet outside per bird,” he said.

Konecny has observed that Toulouse geese are especially sensitive to a diet overly rich in protein.

“They must process protein a little bit differently,” he said. He didn’t have any angel wing in his flocks in 2012.

Commercial meat birds can be allowed to hatch their own eggs and raise their goslings. Exhibition birds are too large and heavy. Konecny recommends setting their eggs artificially.

The IWBA has developed its own feed formula to supply all the nutritional needs of waterfowl. Breeders were dissatisfied with the formulas offered on the market, none of which had everything waterfowl need. The IWBA formula includes fish meal, important to waterfowl that often include fish in their wild diet, and probiotics. It’s also competitively priced to be affordable for both backyard poultry keepers and commercial producers. Distillers grain, a common feed ingredient, harbors microtoxins that geese can tolerate but can kill smaller ducks.

The IWBA has arranged for the formula to be produced by Hubbard Feed, making it available in the Midwest and Great Lakes area. Production and distribution for the rest of the country are in the works. IWBA is looking for other small, regional feed companies to produce duck and goose feed according to their formula.

The Winter IWBA Bulletin has a detailed description of the feed formula and is available from IWBA through its web site or by contacting Chris Ervay at (919) 880-8538. 

“We want everyone who raises waterfowl to have a good food,” he said. “Most commercial feeds are horrid for our birds.”

Feed may be a factor in keeping heavy geese’ legs, feet and bills the correct orange color, like this one from Metzer Farms. They should not be pink, but pink feet and legs and reddish pink bills have been showing up all around the country. Even Konecny’s geese have developed pink feet. Metzer attributes it to feed that relies on grains other than corn. Lower levels of xanthopylls in other grains result in the undesirable pink feet. Some birds may have a genetic tendency toward pink feet, legs and bills, too.

“Unless they are getting green grass or alfalfa hay, their bills, feet and egg yolks will lose their orange color over time,” Metzer said. “The underlying color in some geese seems to be pink.”

With time and space to grow, good food to eat and a pool to splash in, geese do well in all climates. The United Nations, in a Food and Agriculture brochure titled The Underestimated Species, calls them “a multipurpose animal,” an “ecological weed control alternative” and “the unbribable watchdog.”  Underappreciated for the value they can add to integrated farm operations, heavy geese are losing ground on American farms.

“Our large Standard breeds of chickens, ducks and geese are the breeds that are disappearing and are in trouble,” said Konecny. “IWBA is available to help new breeders get started and succeed.”

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Spa Chicken Experience

Travaasa Austin offers more than facials and massage -- they teach  you how to keep chickens!

Their flock includes Plymouth Rocks and Rhode Island Reds. The Wall Street Journal says:

"ALL IT TAKES to learn how to raise chickens in your backyard is a few nights at a spa—specifically, the Travaasa Austin resort in Texas hill country. In the retreat's new urban farming program, organic farmer Kim Grabosky teaches city slickers about seed germination, plant transferring and a handful of other topics. She also leads the popular Hen & Egg course, where she instructs students in the art of raising chicks in an urban coop. Guests can learn to spot a good egg, and distinguish between a Rhode Island Red and a Plymouth Rock breed. Proponents say that tending chickens decreases your carbon footprint, keeps pests at bay and can be a calming escape. Plus, you'll be able to make some stellar omelets."


Introducing Travaasa, a new collection of experiential spa resorts that emphasizes real travel and the unique, authentic qualities that make a destination magical. Learn more about the Travaasa Vision. Our hotels are tailored to the intellectually active and culturally curious, offering a resort experience that is defined by guided adventures, culinary classes, cultural encounters, healing spa treatments, as well as fitness and wellness workshops.

I'm so glad that upscale resorts are finding the joy and usefulness of keeping chickens. 

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Heavy Geese

Geese, long ago domesticated and a companion to human agriculture, are losing ground. Backyard chickens are popular and easy to keep, but breeding geese is a different commitment. They require lots of time, feed and space to grow and mature through their life cycle.

“The decline has subtlely grown over the years, due to loss of farms, for economic reasons and the cost of feed,” said James Konency, experienced waterfowl breeder and president of the International Waterfowl Breeders Association. “There are limited flocks. The numbers have really declined.”

Geese are separated into three classes for exhibition purposes by the American Poultry Association: Heavy, Medium and Light. This article will focus on the heavy breeds: Embden, African and Toulouse.

All three Heavy breeds have been in the Standard since the first one was published in 1874. Big geese require time and space to succeed. But there’s a market for them and they are an asset to integrated farms.

All three heavy goose breeds have separate lines for commercial production and exhibition showing. It’s confusing, because they go by the same names. Exhibition birds are larger than commercial ones. Exhibition Embdens stand 36 to 40 inches tall, compared with commercial ones at 25 to 30 inches. Commercial varieties are bred for quick growth to table size. They have good fertility and reproduce well.

“Compared to commercial varieties, exhibition geese are just massive,” said Konecny.His exhibition male Toulouse is a good example.

Geese are generally hardy and easy to manage. They are naturally resistant to many of the maladies that afflict other poultry. Reginald Appleyard, legendary English waterfowl breeder, describes them as “being amongst the brainiest of all classes of domesticated fowls.” They eat grass and weeds. They are sociable with each other and with people. They form a cohesive gaggle, the word technically correct for a group of geese on the ground, as they graze. They are a flock in flight. Domestic geese retain some ability to fly, but they need time to take off and a clear runway. With a happy home and comfortable living conditions, they are unlikely to present any problem by taking to the air.

Some geese are territorial, especially during the breeding season, and will sound the alarm when strangers approach. They are effective as watchdogs, because they announce the presence of strangers so noisily. They are protective of the flock. Geese have strong individual personalities.

“They will respond to you and have a conversation with you,” said Konecny. “They make great pets even if you don’t tame them down.”

Domestic geese retain some wild qualities. Even wild geese tame relatively easily. Wild/domestic hybrids are not uncommon. Domestic geese, like their wild relatives, are seasonal egg layers. Chickens and some ducks have been selectively bred and domesticated to be year-round egg layers. Geese have not, although some breeds lay between 20 and 40 eggs in a season.

Embden: These are the big, white farmyard geese. This photo is from Metzer Farms in California. Standard weights for adults are 26 pounds for males, 20 pounds for females. They are not as noisy as Africans but not as quiet as Toulouse. They are excellent meat birds that require three years to reach full maturity.

“You can see your potential and what you will have at Year One,” said Konecny, “but full potential will be reached in three years. You have to have patience. That’s the growing cycle of these big birds.”

Toulouse: Historically, this French breed was raised for its large liver, used in making foie gras. Today, the exhibition Toulouse is less desirable as a meat bird because of its extra fat. Commercial Toulouse are popular for the table, smaller and leaner. The ideal exhibition Toulouse is low-slung and heavy bodied, with a dewlap under the chin and a fatty keel below its midsection hanging nearly to the ground. Because of this lower distribution of its body, its legs appear short.

The Toulouse was originally an all gray breed but now a buff variety is recognized and some breeders maintain white flocks. This one is photographed at Metzer Farms.

Ganders often weigh as much as 30 pounds, although Standard weights are 26 pounds for old ganders and 20 pounds for old geese.

African: The big brown or white African geese have a distinctive knob on their head, black in the brown variety and orange in the white, above the top bill. A buff variety, with black knob, is being raised but is not yet recognized for exhibition. They stand more upright than other geese, and have long, swan-like necks. Standard weights for exhibition birds are 22 pounds for old ganders and 18 pounds for old geese. Like the other breeds, commercial varieties are smaller, more like Chinese geese, their cousins in the Light classification. African geese are more likely than the other two heavy breeds to be interested in having a relationship with humans. They are also the most likely to be good setters.

“Even though I don’t spend a lot of time with them, they stay pretty tame,” said Konecny. “Africans stand out as the friendliest.” This is one of his friendly Africans.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Turkeys at Pacifica

The turkeys moved to their new home last week, at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Carpinteria. Land Manager Marshall Chrostowski decided he'd like to have a couple of turkeys to join his eight hens.
Marshall's very knowledgeable about the land he has recovered from what was formerly a parking lot. It's now a lush, productive farm. It's the ideal sustainable operation: lots of foliage and variety to attract plenty of bees, butterflies and birds, while renewing the soil for increasing productivity.
This lovely amaranth develops seeds the chickens love.

The turkeys were getting too big for our small chicken run.  Even bigger than Blondie, my biggest chicken, a White Dorking. This one towers over the black and white Ancona.
 They all got along well, but size does give one advantages. Not that they were throwing their weight around. They were still intimidated by the senior chickens in the pecking order.
 Bigger than mother Lady Fanny, a Speckled Sussex.
 They grew up beautiful. Their feathers are getting that iridescent sheen.
 They give Lady Fanny first peck, despite being bigger than she is.
 Miss Wyandotte, a younger pullet, enjoyed their company. At this point, Lady Fanny no longer defends them the way she did when they were little poults.
One was growing faster than the other. Perhaps one is a male and the other a female? Time will tell.
 They have much more space in their new coop. It's right next to the chickens, so they can get to know each other before they are put together.

The coops have a roofed area for protection from the elements and an outdoor run. A perfect home for them. Thanks, Marshall! We look forward to coming back to visit.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Children's chicken heroes

I'd add Flossie and Bossie by Eva Le Gallienne to this list. It's out of print but one of my favorites. It's a sweet book that shows life lessons as it tells a story of two bantam hens and their chicks. Mean Bossie snubs and bullies meek Flossie, but after they both hatch chicks, events conspire to tech both lessons. They become sisters in motherhood as they watch their large fowl chicks grow into giants.
 The Garth Williams illustrations are wonderful. He did the illustrations for the Little House on the Prairie series.
This drawing shows The Lunatic’s scene as she goes crazy while the other hens are peacefully setting on their eggs. She’s unable to settle down to set on eggs, and is removed from the nest by The Hands.

That crest is the feature people notice first. It’s unusual, and makes them look kind of wacky. That was what Eva Le Gallienne keyed on when she chose a Polish chicken for The Lunatic.

Le Gallienne was an actress, producer and director from the 1920s through the 1960s. She did some writing, and Flossie and Bossie was published in 1949.

Certain animals seem to dominate children's literature. Surely, somewhere in the Winnie-the-Pooh/Peter Rabbit era, bears and bunnies had a meeting and divided up the territory. ("OK, you take cute and fuzzy, we'll take clever and mischievous. Bedtime stories are up for grabs.") Ducks muscled their way in somewhere along the line ("Make Way for Ducklings!").

Other animals are relegated to a kind of niche genre. Elephants have their stars, of course (Babar or, of more recent vintage, Ella). So do mice (Anatole, Frederick, Miss Bianca of "The Rescuers"), though rodents inexplicably have done even better at the movies than in books. Dogs and cats feature in lots of children's books, but that is a different -- excuse the expression -- animal; imagining the secret lives of our pets tells much about ourselves in a way that is different from telling stories about animals we don't know so intimately.

Among children's book enthusiasts, there are passionate collectors of chicken books. What is it about chickens? I wondered as I looked at the new crop of children's books. What do chickens represent? Do chickens have personalities?

For background research, I went to my husband, son of a one-time chicken farmer. In his childhood, he once kept a pet chicken named Chickie Goldstein. There are stories about Chickie Goldstein, notably about the moment when the family realized the creature was not a hen, but a rooster.

"What was it like having a chicken as a pet?" I asked Patrick. "Did it follow you around, do anything special?"

He thought about it. "No, I guess keeping Chickie was like having a cat. He went his own way."

Many children's books set on farms manage almost entirely without chickens. In Doreen Cronin and Betsy Lewin's sassy books about Farmer Brown's farm, the chickens are merely pawns in Duck's schemes. They carry Duck's campaign signs in "Duck for President" (Atheneum/Scholastic: $16.99, ages 4-8) and provide a veil of bland innocence when Duck tricks the farm's temporary guardian into ordering pizza for the barnyard in "Giggle, Giggle, Quack" (Simon & Schuster: $16.99, ages 4-8) with the request: "The hens prefer anchovies."

Other authors, however, find great charm in chickens. Cookbook author Terry Golson, who celebrated the return of the egg to the ranks of health food with "The Farmstead Egg Cookbook," gives her affection for chickens free range in her first children's book, "Tillie Lays an Egg" (Scholastic: $16.99; ages 4-8, photographs by Ben Fink). In it, she tells the story of her own seven hens, six of whom take turns laying eggs in three nesting boxes. The seventh, the adventurous Tillie, lays her eggs while she's out exploring. Each day Tillie lays her egg in a new spot, and it's the job of young readers to locate the eggs in the pictures.

Illustrated with wonderfully staged photographs, the book clearly has a colorful back story. In her end note, the author writes that the chickens "were given too many treats during the photo shoots and now they are quite spoiled and demanding." You can see immediately that for Golson, chickens have a retro appeal, as evidenced by the props used to dress the sets -- lots of chicken-themed collectibles, from tea towels to toys -- as well as by the chickens' names: Edwina, Prudence, Buffy, Marge, Ginger and Tillie. Only Twinkydink has a name you couldn't find on the preschool yard, where every kid nowadays seems to have been named for grandparents either countrified or from the Old Country.

An intrepid hen is also the heroine of "Louise: The Adventures of a Chicken" (HarperCollins: $17.99. Ages 4-8), written and illustrated by kid-lit stars Kate DiCamillo ("The Tale of Desperaux," "Because of Winn-Dixie") and Harry Bliss ("Diary of a Worm," "Which Would You Rather Be?"). The inherent contradiction between "intrepid" and "hen" lies at the heart of this story, which begins: "Louise longed for adventure. She left the henhouse and went to sea, where the water was deep and dark." At each dangerous turn of the story, Louise's heart "beat fast within her feathered breast. Here, at last, was adventure!" At the conclusion of each escapade -- out to sea! off with the circus! kidnapped at a bazaar! -- she returns home to her more sedate sisters and "the deep and peaceful sleep of the true adventurer." It's easy to see the appeal of the chicken who is not chicken: How grand is the wide world when there is a cozy nest to return to! The encouragement to explore, with the assurance that we'll come home safe, is one of the deepest reasons we turn to children's literature.

Whether chickens are necessarily chicken -- cowardly -- was never more amusingly explored than in Tricia Tusa's 1986 book, "Chicken" (Macmillan: out of print). When Fran Moran brings home some fresh farm eggs for breakfast, she's amazed to see one hatch. She names the chick after her late uncle, Dooley Fenton III, and he becomes her best friend. Dooley has no idea that he is anything other than Fran's companion, until he grows up and everyone starts saying it's obvious that he's a chicken. He looks the word up in the dictionary: "afraid, timid . . ." How many of us have been tripped up by not reading the entire dictionary entry? Slowly Dooley sinks into a depression, the main feature of which is that he becomes fearful: "He perspired heavily around other animals and fainted on hearing loud noises." Fran is perplexed by her friend's decline, until one day the necessity of sticking up for Fran rouses Dooley from his funk, and the whole story spills out. This lovely tale could replace a raft of psychology textbooks.

There are numerous literary roosters, like Charles, the braggart in the "Freddy the Pig" series. But loud, vain roosters have a reputation quite separate from chickens, who represent motherliness as strongly as their mates represent heedlessness. In how many other species do the different genders have such different metaphoric qualities? The pride of peacocks, for example, isn't balanced by a correspondingly poetic modesty in peahens.

Motherliness is the chickenly quality that drew the attention of Garth Williams, who started his children's book career illustrating E.B. White's "Stuart Little" in 1943. In "The Chicken Book" (1946), he uses an irresistible rhyme pattern to show how the mother hen teaches her chicks to fend for themselves: "Said the third little chicken, with a sharp little squeal, 'I wish I could find some nice yellow meal.' . . . 'Now see here,' said the mother, from the green garden patch, 'If you want any breakfast, just come here and scratch!' "

For every good-mother story, there's a bad-mother story, and that's what Lisa Campbell Ernst tells in "Zinnia and Dot" (Viking: $16.99, ages 4-8), a tale of two hens who lose their eggs to a weasel while they squabble over whose chicks will be more beautiful. They both claim the one surviving egg, but "sharing was not something that either Zinnia or Dot did well." The illustration of both plump hens squeezing their bottoms together on the box of straw is one of the great images in children's chicken literature. By the time the weasel returns to the henhouse, the two quarrelsome chickens have learned a thing or two about sharing the work of raising a chick, and they repel the intruder together. Off goes the threesome into the sunset: "Never before was a baby chick so loved, growing up with not one, but two mother hens."

The henhouse is not always a cozy domestic haven. As the film, "Chicken Run," reminded us, many chickens are raised in captivity. One of the great tales of dreaming, working and struggling for freedom is the German children's story, "Henrietta and the Golden Eggs" by Hanna Johansen, illustrated by K├Ąthi Bhend, translated from German by John S. Barrett (David R. Godine). Henrietta lives in a filthy, stinky chicken house where "each chicken had just enough room for its feet, but no more." "When I'm big," Henrietta announces, "I'm going to lay golden eggs." The big chickens laugh at her: "Hahahaha!" Then they need to cough. But Henrietta is undaunted ("First I'm going to learn to sing!") and begins scratching an opening in the wall of the chicken house.

After numerous escapes -- all of which create havoc for the workers on the chicken farm -- Henrietta has not quite learned to sing, swim or fly. Despite the derision of her fellow chickens, however, she has managed to secure their freedom to roam in the yard, since the farm managers have given up trying to corral the escaped birds. When it comes time for her to lay her first egg, all the chickens watch her closely: Will it be golden? When it comes out, lovely, round and brown, they point out that they were right all along: She can't lay golden eggs. "Henrietta laughed at all of them and said: 'Did you really believe that a chicken could lay golden eggs?' " The gorgeous woodblock prints that illustrate this book underline the theme of escape by breaking free of the picture frame in many ways.

The idea of golden eggs traditionally represents the industriousness of poultry and the great wealth they grow. "One Hen: How One Small Loan Made a Difference" by Katie Smith Milway, illustrated by Eugenie Fernandes (Kids Can Press: $18.95, ages 5-10), tells how one small hen makes a difference to the family of a boy in Ghana. The book includes information on the organizations that support micro-loans on the model of the Grameen Bank, for which Dr. Muhammad Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006. It's a great introduction to small-scale economics.

Olivier Dunrea, a creator of exquisite and idiosyncratic children's books, has written an entire small novel, "Hanne's Quest" (Philomel: $16.99, ages 9-12), about a small chicken who saves her mistress's farm. The loyal chicken undertakes a great deal of arduous travel and suffering to develop the legendary skill of producing golden eggs.

Have we covered every chickenly feature? There is, of course, the just-because-chickens-are-funny category of story, of which the classic is Daniel Pinkwater's brilliant children's novel, "The Hoboken Chicken Emergency" (Aladdin: $4.99, ages 4-8). In this story, a boy sent out for a Thanksgiving turkey is bullied into buying a live, 266-pound chicken (also named Henrietta; I suppose it's an obvious chicken name). Complications, as you might imagine, ensue.

Just because chickens are funny is the reason that our last book has its title, "Chicken Cheeks" by Michael Ian Black, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes (Simon & Schuster: $15.99, ages 3-7). It's not a book about chickens at all, but a silly book about the many varied words for the gluteus maximus. Since the feathered chicken rump leads the pack in humor, the chicken gets top billing, followed by hounddog heinie, kangaroo keister and gnu wazoo, ending many uproarious, Kevin-Hawkes-illustrated pages later with the bumblebee bum.

For a real-time look at Terry Golson's chickens, go to her website.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Your patriotic duty!

Keeping chickens is your civic duty!
Another good argument when we are called upon to defend keeping chickens.