A Place for Animals-Ducks and Geese
When we arrived here almost 13 years ago, we brought with us a small red coop of 10 laying hens, and a pair of American Buff geese named Ginger and Ferdinand. The chickens no one questioned. But the geese….no one understood.
Arthur, the Chinese goose.
Keeping geese is odd in the US because the US doesn’t keep geese (Europeans keep geese). It’s shortsighted, because geese do a job, which I’ll talk about below. To me, keeping geese in a country that doesn’t keep them really just brings home the point that here in the US we don’t allow our animals to work with us the way that they can. We see them as something to be extracted (just like everything else), instead of as allies. If anything at all, I hope this article will open your eyes to the other things animals can do for us besides providing food (which they do as well).
Ferdinand and Ginger are no longer with us, though their descendants are. Over the years, I have had American Buff, Pilgrims, a very loud and very affectionate Chinese goose named Arthur, and now I have two Ferdinand and Ginger descendants named Persephone and Echo living with a pair of Embden geese named Maxwell and Leona. As to ducks? Such a long cast of characters there. I’ve had Pekins, Runners, Cayugas, Muscovys, Khaki Campbells, Appleyards, and White Crested (for pictures of these, see here). Why so many different types? Turns out that ducks might be delicious for humans, but they are VERY delicious to wild animals, as well as easy pickings. No matter how fenced in my waterfowl yard is, inevitably the ducks go swimming in one of the streams and many times they don’t come back. So yes, we’ve experienced quite a bit of turnover, to put it politely. It is a fact of life.
After keeping ducks and geese for this number of years, I have learned a lot. This is what I can tell you:
Ducks of all breeds, swimming with a goose. That’s the smart thing to do.
· Ducks are incorrectly named. They should be named pigs (and pigs should have been called something else, because they are actually fairly neat). They are, without a doubt, the messiest animals that ever walked the earth, beginning from when they are hatched to when they are all grown up. If there is water, they flick it everywhere. They poop giant wet mushes all over the place, on everything. I absolutely hate keeping ducklings, especially if they need to be brooded indoors, because they are unbelievably messy. I will clean their house every day, and an hour later, it looks like I’ve never been.
· Mess aside, it has been my experience that ducklings should never be brooded when they cannot spend time outside (so not in the super cold months). I once brooded a batch of hatchlings in January, and I’ve never had so many respiratory problems and leg problems in my life — this was despite the near-constant cleaning. I’ll never do that again. Any subsequent batch has been brooded when the temps are at least conducive to being outside for a little while each day, and it eliminated the problems I had experienced with that January batch. Lesson learned.
· Ducks MUST have access to water. MUST. You can have a kiddy pool, you can have a pond or stream, you can put them in your bathtub. Does not matter. They MUST have water. They must wash their eyes and nostrils in water, they must wax in water, and they drink a ton of it. Here’s a fun fact for you: ducks and geese use water to help them swallow their food, which if you feed them purchased food, is dry. If you own ducks and geese, you will see them shovel the food in, and then run for the water to help wash it down. Their esophagi are so long you can watch the food move (especially true for geese with their long necks) as they swallow. It is pretty cool.
· Ducks and geese have evolved to “eat and run”, so they will act like they are STARVING, eat in a wild frenzy, and run to water to wash it all down.
· A duck’s esophagus can expand an enormous amount-kind of like a hamster’s cheeks. The food they bolt and swallow will sit in the bottom of the esophagus right above their stomach and wait to be digested. When you look at a duck, you will sometimes see a bulge in their breast area at the bottom of their necks. If you could catch that duck and gently squeeze that area, you would feel the food they just consumed in that bulge. That’s their esophagus storing their meal. I have seen some days when my ducks had a great foraging day and the dang bulge is nearly dragging on the ground and weighing down their heads. Yet, they will still ask to eat. Like teenagers, perhaps?
· Speaking of eating, ducks can perform a job similar to chickens in that they eat bugs. Whereas a chicken will scratch up the earth and eat ticks and beetles and grubs and whatever, a duck would prefer slugs, snails, and worms. They will also eat tadpoles, small fish and small frogs, so be careful where you let them roam. Ducks do not scratch like a chicken, kicking stuff all over the place, but they do drill with their bills into the earth. It seems less destructive to plants, but they are making small holes everywhere.
· Imprinting is a cool phenomenon, which is often misunderstood. If a duck imprints on you, the duck does not think you are another duck, nor does the duck think it is a person. Animals do not categorize the way that humans do, so it’s difficult for us to understand, but if a duck (or goose) imprints on you, you are both then the same thing. Not a duck, not a goose, not a person, just the same. They follow because their instinct is to follow. Ducks walk in a line everywhere, always, with each following the other. That’s why this happens. It is cute, but the phenomenon gets oversimplified easily. I know a couple of other things about imprinting:
o The time that a hatchling will be most susceptible to imprint is 13–17 hours after hatching. It happens to both ducks and geese.
o They will imprint on whatever they are around; other ducks, people, whatever. I have had ducks hatched out by chickens, and they imprinted on the chickens. I have heard that farmers in some countries will imprint their goslings on a large stick. When they graze the geese in fields, they place the stick where they are grazing, thereby ensuring that the geese will always stay in sight of the stick, which they have imprinted on. But I have my doubts about this being completely valid because….
o It has been my experience that imprinting “wears off” at a certain age. The duck who imprinted on a chicken eventually stopped sitting outside the chicken coop looking longingly at the other chickens (heartbreaking) and went off with the other ducks instead. Every batch of ducks I have hand-raised eventually got over me and went off with their duck friends. And geese, who actually are completely affectionate when they are small and will sit in your lap and follow you and eat from your hands, will go through what I call “a-hole mode” at some point and from then on will never let you touch them again. I have proof of this with my daughter’s high school graduation picture. Taken during Covid part 1, they were done piecemeal by a photographer who told the kids to “bring anything they wanted” to be in the picture with them. He meant musical instruments or sports equipment. She brought Maxwell the goose. Therefore, I have pictures of us standing with a soon to be grad, who is holding the small goose she had been caring for. He was perfectly happy. Weeks later, he screeched and chased her away. A-hole mode — it’s a real thing in geese. And maybe it means that imprinting wears off — or changes, or something.
· Ducks are very much like sheep, in that they will go the opposite way that you want them to go, because they are trying to get away from you. If you are trying to control ducks, you need to go right to make them go left, and back away so they will come forward. Things like that.
· Ducks will learn where they live very quickly and will return at the end of a day, even if you haven’t seen a single duck all day long. They always know when it’s dinner time, and that’s when they will return.
· You should pen ducks in a house with a strong floor that ground level. The strong floor is to deter burrowing animals who would like to eat your ducks.
Duck housing, 2 versions. On the left, the before, when they lived in a sturdy and unused meatbird house. On the right, after it was re-faced to make it easier for me to get into to clean and gather eggs. The house has remained 6 foot by 3 foot–only the height changed. Anywhere from five to a dozen ducks are housed in here with no problems.
· Ducks are VERY afraid of new things. Changes to their home will make them nervous for days and you will have a tougher time getting them to go in. They will still go in — eventually — but you will work for it. Once they are used to the change, they will go in much more easily.
· Not all ducks quack. Muscovy ducks, who are thought to be a duck/goose cross, do not quack at all, but make like a whispering hiss. (They are also smart as whips, which is not at all duck-like.) In the other duck breeds it is the female who makes the loud “QUACK QUACK QUACK!”, not the male. Males either make a very quiet demi-quack, or a hissing sound. This is one way you can tell the sexes apart.
· The coloring on different duck breeds will also lead you to know who’s male and who’s female, as they can be very different. However, in certain breeds, like the Pekin (in which both sexes are white), it is harder to tell. In that case, you look for the “drake feather” on the duck’s butt. Males have a feather on their tail that curls upwards. Females only have flat feathers on their tails. If the quacking/lack of quacking didn’t give it away, this is another way to tell what you’ve got.
· You should not have just one duck, and the ratio of males to females is important. You should not have more males than females. They will fight each other viciously during mating season if there are too many males for the available females. They pull feathers, they pull wings, they go for the eyes, they gang up on the weaklings. They can be amazingly destructive to one another.
Cayuga ducks desperate to get away from the scary lady with the camera. There are 6 there, but they blend in well
· Mating takes place in the water, so it’s another reason you need water for your ducks. The female shows she is she has shown she is receptive to mating by swimming near the male and ducking her head repeatedly. The male will climb on the female while she swims, usually causing her to go under the water. However, the mating takes place quickly, and the male rolls right off, so up she pops. They both wash afterwards. If you have too many males, they will fight on top of the flirting female, hurting one another and potentially drowning the female with their weight. This is another reason why the ratio is so important.
· Ducks and geese both have a preen gland at the base of their tales, which contains a waterproofing oil. They will squeeze the gland with their bills, put the oil on their heads, and then rub it all over their bodies. The oil is a yellowish color, seen only if you have white ducks standing on something else that is white. When it snows I always laugh to see my “white” Pekins waddling around, yellow as can be in the pure white snow. That’s the oil at work.
· Ducks have thick feathers and can withstand pretty cold temperatures by burying their vulnerable faces in their wings, tucking their feet into their undersides and huddling together. I am always careful to protect them from strong cold winds, however.
· Duck manure is watery and messy and sits on top of whatever substrate you use for bedding. This means you can turn the substrate a few times instead of composting it right away, because underneath that first poopy layer the substrate is probably pretty clean.
· I haven’t found duck manure to be “hot” like chicken manure. I have put it near plants directly without noticing any damage, and I have put it in beds to compost only a month or two before planting.
When my kids were young, they begged to bring the ducks into the house. This was the only way they were allowed to come in — with a duck diaper made out of an old sock on their butts. They really do poop everywhere.
· Ducks will provide you with eggs during the spring and summer months. Or in this horrible hot world we are creating, they will provide you will eggs starting in January. (At least, that’s what’s happening this year, and it’s not ok.) Either way, the eggs are white, (I think one breed might lay a light green one, but I can’t think of which at the moment) but if you have Cayuga ducks, they lay a dark grey/black egg , which is a colored cuticle on the shell, and it gets lighter as the year progresses. Duck eggs are larger than chicken eggs, have a thicker and slightly waxy shell, and a higher protein content. You can eat them, of course, as they are meatier-tasting than a chicken’s egg. If you don’t want to eat them, keep them for baking! They are amazing in baked goods.
Maxwell, the Embden gander in all his glory
Before I tell you about geese, let me tell you about the work they can do and how you can use it to your advantage:
· Geese are built to watch the skies. This works to your advantage, because geese can be nursemaids to your free-ranging chicken flock. Anything they see fly over they will make a noise at, this noise is understood by everyone, and then everyone takes cover or freezes depending on how that noise is interpreted. This is a cool phenomenon to witness, and it does not matter if the goose is near the flock or not. As long as the alert is heard, it is reacted to. I love this aspect, because I work alone on my property 95% of the time, and I can’t work near the ducks or the chickens for most of it. Having geese means that I have a pair of eyes on the flock when I can’t do so.
· Geese are territorial, which can be useful. They will tell you when someone has pulled into your driveway or walked past your yard, etc. The noises are different for both of these things, which is helpful. Again, a bonus when you work outside alone.
· People seem to be afraid of geese. I guess most people know kind of what to do with a barking dog, but do not know what to do with a honking goose. If you need this aspect in your life, well…there it is.
· Geese protect whatever is around them by the noise they make and their sheer size. The ducks who hang near the geese come back day after day. Those who wander out of their eyesight are not always so lucky.
· Geese make circuits around their territory during the day, watching for intruders or anomalies. My geese walk in a counter-clockwise circle around my property all day long, using the house as their center point. They absolutely do take breaks to swim and eat, but the circling is observable and consistent.
So how do we use this awesome ability to help us out? How do we manage it?
· Most of the time they don’t need managing. They are obsessive nursemaids who will do the job they are born to do, no help from us to do it.
· However, if you do need to manage them for any reason, geese come with an inborn understanding of hand signals. This is the coolest thing ever, and this is what you do:
o Get in front of your gaggle.
o Decide what direction you want them to go and then extend that arm out in that direction with your pointer and middle fingers extended that way. Curl the other fingers in.
o Put the other hand on your hip.
o Watch the geese run quickly in the direction you are pointing.
If you need to get your geese to go somewhere they do not want to go, and the above is not working, then:
o Get in front of your gaggle.
o Spread out both arms wide
o Walk slowly towards your gaggle and watch them go where they didn’t want to go as fast as possible.
This looks very cool and like you’re a master/mistress of the universe, but you’re not (If anyone sees you do this, they absolutely will think you’re amazing. Enjoy that. Since people who do things like keep animals and garden are seen as “odd” in society, we might as well enjoy the wins). Geese aren’t really trainable, but you can work with their instincts, which is what you’re doing here. When you point with one hand with the other arm on your hip, you look like a big goose to the other geese. They like to follow the big goose, so they will go where your fingers (which look like a beak) tell them to go. When you spread out your arms in front of them, you look like an impenetrable wall that is coming towards them, so they back away. It makes sense from the point of view of the goose, and you can use it as an advantage and a help to get them where you would like them to be, if they weren’t going there already.
Again, the smart ducks swim with the geese. Embdens are in the water, Buffs are to the left
So that’s how we use geese to work. Other things to know:
· Geese can live off of grass. Supplemental feed is unnecessary when the grass is actively growing
· Geese love dandelions. If you have some on your property before you have geese, you won’t after you bring geese home.
· Geese will eat from your hands if they are familiar with you as the one who feeds them. It can be a good practice, especially if they are your co-workers and you want to keep good relations with them. However, they are not careful about it, and they eat very quickly, so they may pinch your fingers when they grab the food. It is unintentional.
· Geese need water, and though I’ve seen many sources that say they only need enough to wash their eyes and nostrils in, I disagree. Mine love to swim and bathe and they mate in water just like ducks. They also use it to wash down the dry food. I would say their water needs are the same as ducks.
· Geese are loud. “Quiet” geese are loud. “Loud” geese are loud. Geese are just loud.
· Geese need a place to nap at night. They should be put in a safe house that is at ground level. I don’t worry about the floor with geese because it seems that the smaller predators will not go near them. I do make sure the house is secured from larger predators, however.
· Goose manure is very similar to duck manure, in that it sits on top of the bedding substrate, which can be turned before being composted.
· I have been able to use goose manure in the same manner as duck manure.
· Geese mate for life. If you lose one half of a mated pair, the survivor will mourn until she/he finds another mate. They mourn loudly, calling all over the place for the deceased. They don’t stop. It is heartbreaking.
· If you wish to add to your gaggle, adding females is a better choice than adding males, though it can be done. My happiest gaggles have been a harem with one or at most two males with several females to each male.
· Even with several females available, only one is the gander’s bonded mate. He’ll mate with all of them, but if you take away the bonded mate, he will cry. If you take away the “backups”, he will not. This has been my experience.
· Goose mating (the action of sex) is extremely loud on everyone’s part. Even the spectators get in on the noise. Luckily, it’s seasonal. But it is frequent.
· Goose mating is similar to duck mating in that it take place in water and the male climbs onto the female and rolls off when it’s done. Then everyone has a bath.
· Geese lay eggs very seasonally in the spring, after mating season has started. This year, mating season started in January. Not funny. The eggs are very large and the shells are very hard. The yolks are very big and the albumin is very thick. I’ve never eaten one, but I have baked with them. I don’t think I would do so again, because they have a distinct taste that didn’t bake out. I have had people buy them for pysanki, though, and I think that’s a great use for them.
· Geese go broody very easily and willingly-I have not noticed a difference in breed. Geese are also very defensive of their nests.
A few words on goose aggression:
· Geese are generally not aggressive, but very defensive. Humans tend to misunderstand and mistranslate their behavior.
· Geese defend themselves in a few ways:
o Screaming at the tops of their lungs
o Running away; they are terrible at this because they trip a lot (remember, they are looking up)
o Flying away; unless the breed is very heavy (like Toulouse), geese can fly short distances near the ground. They are very fast this way.
o Pinching; they grab a hold of something and twist their beaks around while biting it
o Buffeting with their wings; their wings are very heavy and very powerful. This hurts the most, if you get hit.
· Geese do hiss if they are warning you, and this might be what people are afraid of, but I think it’s the “ladeling” that geese do that scare people so much. This is when a gander (it’s usually the male who does this) puts his head down to the ground, stretches his neck all the way out, and puffs out his body. Generally he makes a run for you at the same time. I call this position “ladeling”. Sometimes he will also puff out his neck feathers and shake them at you right before he runs at you. Often he will hiss. Sometimes he’ll do this when he feels you are too close to his ladies, and other times he’ll run at you from way across the yard. Mating season makes ganders stupid, is all I can say. To counter this behavior, just stand your ground-make sure you are facing the goose challenging you. He will not make contact; he’s trying to frighten you. If you don’t run away, your reward will be to watch him stop short of you, stand up, turn around slowly to his gaggle, and walk back while making a noise that can only be described as laughing at you. The gaggle will echo his laughter, and they will all walk off together. You are the butt of their joke.
· Only once in 13 years have I had a gander who was so super defensive that he couldn’t be trusted, and I believe it was because my kids were little then and moved so quickly around the yard. I think he felt threatened by their movements and reacted so often he started to overreact. He had to be rehomed to a larger flock and a yard with no kids in it.
Ducks and geese are really low maintenance in comparison to other animals I have cared for. I really just provide them with a home, make sure they have feed when they need it, and leave them alone. In return, I get eggs and help watching things on the property. Of course, you can eat both ducks and geese. We do not because we don’t care for goose, and my kids get too attached to the ducks to eat them. Obviously, not everyone feels the same way, and that’s just fine too.
This really is what it’s all about: geese, turkeys, ducks, chickens all living together. I don’t know if it gets better.
Next time we’ll talk about goats, who are my favorite (next to the CorgiGirls, obviously) animal here. Then we’re back in the garden. I’m zone 6a, so I have already seeded onions for this year, as well as a couple of slower growing herbs and the sweet potato slips from last year’s potatoes. I have noticed that the seed displays in stores are much smaller this year, has anyone else noticed this? I’ve also noticed that they are completely full and no one seems to be buying yet. Did everyone order from online suppliers months ago, as I did? Or have they just decided to not try? I have no idea, but if you are reading this, hopefully you are trying to help yourself out a bit by growing something this year. It’s not like anything is getting better, after all.
See you next time!