By Kirsten Lie-Nielsen, Maine — If you are a backyard farmer considering poultry but think that geese are disruptive and overly aggressive, think again. While it is true that geese can be protective of their home, they make up for this by being remarkably good friends to those who are willing to invest time in raising them. You’ll find these animals offer a number of helpful benefits to your farming life.
It is surprising how smart and entertaining these farm fowl are. Their intelligence goes beyond knowing which way is south in the winter (which most domesticated breeds do not care about), geese have a complex social understanding and the ability to learn by observing. Studies have indicated that a goose can recognize a person even after many years apart and can differentiate humans they trust from other people.
If you are worried about potential conflict, you can select certain breeds of geese, which are more docile, such as Pilgrims, Embdens and Sebastapols. For some farmers, the volume and attitude associated with aggressive geese are actually preferred, because geese make fantastic guard animals. They are not easily deterred by bribes, as dogs often are, and their eyesight is incredibly keen. Their trademark honk cannot be mistaken for anything else. When you know your goose well, you’ll be able to discern a casual call from an alarming one.
When considering geese I always recommend raising them by hand. Find a breeder with a good reputation and strong stock. The heritage of a goose will affect its personality, weight and egg production later in life. A goose’s personality is further shaped by how it is raised. “Imprinting” is what happens when a goose identifies with the person it sees as providing it with food. This bond is typically created in the first one to two weeks of a gosling’s life, and they will remain bonded to that person for life, even if they pair with another goose as an adult. A gosling will follow its imprinted human around with more adoration than a puppy. Once fully grown, their behavior may become more aloof, but they will still prefer the company of those they have imprinted on. Much of the reputation of aggression in geese stems from geese protecting their humans.
The term “goose” technically refers to a female, while “gander” is the proper term for a male. These days we use “goose” to describe both genders. Males are usually more aggressive than females and can display particular attitude when kept with other males. A ratio of three to four geese to a gander should help to calm tensions in a flock with more than one male. You can have as many or as few geese as you want, but if you have only one goose he or she will be more attached to you than a goose with a mate.
Attentive and curious birds, geese will follow you around, accompanying you on your daily chores and chiming in eagerly at every opportunity. For geese kept in a run or pen, it is important to keep them amused and make sure they receive plenty of hay, grass clippings, and crumble. Many geese are kept free range and they are remarkably easy keepers. Because of their size, they are not threatened by the same common predators as chickens or ducks, and they instinctually retreat to water if threatened. The main predators of an adult goose are coyotes, eagles, and loose dogs. Many instructional pamphlets on goose care recommend leaving them free range as adults, but I would suggest securing them indoors at night for safety. A large enclosure, with plenty of loose hay, will also be ideal for nesting if your goose becomes broody.
While geese don’t need a pond or lake, they do require water deep enough to immerse their beaks in order to eat, to prevent their sinuses from clogging. Water provided with food should not be deep enough for them to bathe in, but additional water for bathing should also be provided. Geese are remarkably messy animals and any water source will need to be kept clean at all times, and free of ice in winter.
Because of their curious natures, geese can get themselves into trouble with neighbors and traffic. It’s recommended to fence your property if you don’t keep your geese in a run, because they will wander off in search of amusement. While they will usually scatter if shooed off, they still can create quite a mess of droppings in a short time, and if they are visiting your neighbors this might not be appreciated.
Unlike chickens, which can be very unwelcoming to new flock additions, geese are highly social and coexist well with other fowl such as ducks and chickens, as well as other geese. While they maintain a pecking order, geese are much more peaceable among their kind and do not attempt serious injury on those stepping out of line. Because their language skills are superior to chickens, they can often communicate with other waterfowl species, which speeds up the bonding process when they are introduced.
Overall geese make a show of aggression but tend to be more curious skills make them fun to have around and thanks to both their ill repute and loud volume, they can be an ideal guard animal for a backyard flock. Geese are charming personalities and once you’ve had one in your flock, you won’t be able to resist them.
COMMON GOOSE BREEDS
The most popular breed of backyard geese in the United States, Embdens are heavy weight, docile geese with white feathering and orange bills. They are mainly kept for meat and eggs, and have calm personalities.
There are several varieties of the Toulouse breed, the most common of which is the production variety. Toulouse are laid back, large birds with gray feathers and orange bills.
African geese are brown with dark bills and a large protuberance above their beaks. They have an upright carriage and are loud, and sometimes aggressive.
This smaller breed of goose comes in both a white and brown variety and are most frequently kept as weeder geese. They are quite noisy and make good guard birds.
Pilgrims are the only autosexing variety of goose, with the males appearing white in color and the females gray. One of the more prolific egg-laying varieties, Pilgrims are calm and recommended as brooders because of their kindly nature.
Largely a decorative breed, Sebastopols have distinct, curled white feathers. Unique in appearance, they are quiet and peaceable birds.
Kirsten Lie-Nielsen is a freelance writer and farmer from Liberty, Maine. When not cultivating a growing garden and tending her geese and other animals, she maintains Hostile Valley Living (hostilevalleyliving.com), hoping to help others learn about self-reliance and simple living.
Originally published in the February/March 2016 issue of Backyard Poultry magazine.