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.
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.
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.”