Understanding the Behavior of Domestic Geese
In my opinion, one of the most fascinating aspects of raising domestic waterfowl involves observing the behavior patterns in a flock of geese. Geese are tremendously social animals and the relationships that form in a flock are both amazing and amusing to watch. Unlike most other forms of poultry, geese are relatively long lived and so their behavior can be observed over a long span of time. It is also clear to me that geese tend to vary more from one individual to another in terms of personality traits than any other form of domestic poultry does.
In general, geese of the small breeds (Egyptians, Chinas, and Canadas) tend to live longer than those of the largest breeds. From personal experience, I can attest that Chinas are capable of living well into their twenties. The longest life span of a large goose that I can personally vouch for was fourteen years. I am certain, however, that geese of even the largest breeds are capable of living well beyond that age. Waterfowl breeder Dave Holderread recently told me that he owns a few Pilgrims that are still producing eggs well into their twenties. The oldest bird that Dave has ever heard of was a White China gander owned by a friend of his. The bird lived into it's mid forties. The friend had an easy way of keeping track of the bird's age because the bird was part of a pair given to the woman and her husband for a wedding present. I am personally convinced that the stress of egg production affects the longevity of female geese. Every goose I can think of that has lived an extraordinarily long life has been a male.
Some of the poultry literature written in the 1800's contains allusions to birds that lived to remarkable ages- 100 years or more. I am personally skeptical of such assertions but I do believe that members of farm flocks back then may have lived longer because they were not fed feeds that induce protracted periods of egg production, an activity that is undoubtedly stressful and that will, perhaps, shorten the bird's life span. Today, both the use of high protein feeds and artificial lights are commonly employed to extend the laying season. In terms of a range of life expectancy, I would put the Chinas, the Canadas and perhaps the Egyptians at the upper end of the longevity spectrum and exhibition Toulouse at the lower end. Keep in mind, however, that any individual may defy those averages. Certainly, the quality of care is a huge determining factor.
This newspaper picture shows a man with his 36 year old China cross gander.
Geese kept in flocks (groups comprised of more than one mating) will establish a hierarchy of dominance. Once established, such a "pecking order" will generally make fighting unnecessary and infrequent. Fighting will sometimes occur during the breeding season when conflict between ganders can occur over nesting sites if matings are not separated. If matings are not penned separately during the breeding season, the common enclosure must be quite spacious if fighting is to be minimized.
There is a very common tendency on the parts of males to "protect" their mates by standing between their female(s) and a perceived threat. Usually, the male will also extend his neck and hiss at the intruder. That behavior is a fairly reliable identifier of ganders within a flock if there are females and males present and if the birds are sexually mature. Some ganders are quite content with such a "show" of aggression and will seldom if ever actually make physical contact. Others may well press an attack with their wings and/or bills; particularly if the intruder (who may well be their keeper) has his back turned or is in a crouching position. It is unwise to underestimate the damage that can be done by a gander in such situations. The good news is that such aggressive behavior usually ebbs with the end of the breeding season. If one is careful to keep a wary eye on aggressive ganders and wears protective clothing if necessary, it has been my experience that even flocks of the largest breeds of geese can be easily managed.
Imprinting of Goslings
The identification by a gosling (or duckling) of a human as it's "parent" is often referred to as the process of "imprinting". The result is that the gosling looks to the human (or even a dog, cat, or other animal) for protection, affection, and guidance. True imprinting usually takes place soon after hatching but goslings can easily become quite attached to their keeper almost any time during their early lives. Even an adult bird can develop a relationship with a human that seems to resemble imprinting but such a relationship takes longer to develop and may never run as deep. Many imprinted young geese may actually seem to prefer human company to that of their own kind. Goslings will gladly follow their owners around, will accept food from the hand, and will welcome physical contact with the keeper. Such a bond is likely to remain strong unless the gosling is forced to become part of a flock and begins to develop relationships with other geese, particularly a pair bond.
Even geese raised in a group and never intentionally imprinted will often seek human company, especially if they become accustomed to having one keeper around. My oldest breeding pair of Toulouse almost always approaches the fence of their enclosure that is closest to me when I am in the yard and "talks" to me softly as I go about my chores. They do have good memories about unpleasant experiences, however, that can alter that behavior. Last year, I was forced to medicate the female for an intestinal ailment. The treatment involved catching her and administering some oral antibiotics every day for a week. The female clearly did not enjoy the experience and remains more aloof than does the male even though it has been more than six months since she was caught and handled.
Geese Thrive on Routine and Tranquillity
Geese are truly creatures of habit. They do best when they can follow a set routine under the care of a familiar keeper. They are often very sensitive to the presence of strangers (and strange animals) and to other changes in their environment.
Disruption of the routine during the breeding season is especially disturbing to geese, particularly those of the larger breeds. Egg production can often be affected and so can fertility when breeding geese are moved or greatly disturbed.
Management of Breeding Geese
When left on their own, geese will select their own mates and will generally stay with the same mates year after year unless the mating is broken up through death or removal of one of the partners. Changing mates can be accomplished the easiest when the former mate is removed out of sight and hearing. Last minute changes of mates as the breeding season approaches are frequently unsuccessful. Any changes should be made the previous fall, if possible. In general, the Chinas are the easiest in terms of manipulation of matings and China ganders are also the most likely to accept multiple partners. The heavy breeds of geese seem most comfortable in pair matings with trio matings (one male, two females) not uncommon. Matings consisting of more than two females and a gander in the exhibition strains of heavy geese are quite rare, in my experience.
Typical threatening pose by a gander during the breeding season. Such behavior on the part of this gander entirely ceased at other times of the year.
Certainly geese deserve high marks in terms of their desire and ability to be good parents when given the opportunity to do. Most breeds of geese will incubate their own eggs successfully (Chinas perhaps being the exception) If they are given adequate protections from predators, most can also be counted on to raise their broods themselves. I have even seen lone individuals and pairs consisting of two members of the same sex raise groups of goslings and exhibit the behavior of devoted parents. The fact that they did not hatch the goslings themselves does not seem to matter. Even Chinas do not lack the desire to raise goslings. They simply possess a nervous disposition that makes it difficult for them to stay the whole course in terms of the incubation period (27-28 days) and they often will continue filling a nest with eggs long after the number of eggs would make it impossible for a single female to cover them. If one carefully manages the number of eggs a given female is allowed to incubate and provides a secluded and secure nesting site, even some Chinas are capable of successfully hatching goslings. On average, older birds are more likely to be successful than young ones.
Noise and Geese
If you live in an area where noise must be carefully controlled, perhaps geese are not for you. All forms of domestic geese can be noisy. Some breeds are noisier than others, however. The two breeds that are clearly the most noisy are the Chinas and Egyptians. The female Egyptian will often call almost non-stop during the breeding season. Chinas of both sexes are quite talkative normally and can be downright noisy during the breeding season.
The medium and larger breeds of geese tend to be somewhat more quiet but all breeds will be louder during the breeding season. I should mention that the African has a wonderful melodic call but that "honk" can often be heard for quite a distance.
How can one minimize the noise? First, consider sheltering the flock in an insulated building at night and not letting them out until a little later in the morning. Ideally, any windows in such a building will face away from the nearest neighbors. Next best is enclosing the pasture with a solid fence (stockade type) at least six feet in height. Such fencing tends to force the noise up rather than letting it flow directly out. A less effective but useful method of sound control is the planting of a screen of fast growing evergreens such as Norway Spruce. Once they are well grown (6 footers become 20 footers in 8-10 years), such a line of trees can be an effective visual screen as well as a sound muffler.
Good Books About Geese
(In the order I recommend them)
- The Book of Geese by Dave Holderread
- Modern Waterfowl Management and Breeding Guide by Oscar Grow
- Keeping Domestic Geese by Barbara Soames
Originally published: 02-09-2004
Last updated: 08-31-2009