Living With Geese

Novelist and gozzard Paul Theroux ruminates about avian misconceptions, anthropomorphism and March of the Penguins as “a travesty of science”

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Edward Lear was also capable of writing in this whimsical vein, yet his paintings of birds rival Audubon's in dramatic accuracy. Lear could be soppy about his cat, but he was clearsighted the rest of the time. E. B. White is never happier than when he is able to depict an animal by humanizing it as a friend. Yet what lies behind the animal's expression of friendship? It is an eagerness for easy food. Feed birds and they show up. Leave the lids off garbage cans in Maine and you've got bears—"beggar bears" as they're known. Deer love the suburbs—that's where the easiest meals are. Woodchucks prefer dahlias to dandelions. The daily imperative of most animals, wild and tame, is the quest for food, which is why, with some in your hand, you seem to have a pet, if not a grateful pal.

White's geese are not just contented but cheerful. They are also sorrowful. They are malicious, friendly, broken-spirited. They mourn. They are at times "grief-stricken." White is idiosyncratic in distinguishing male from female. He misunderstands the cumulative battles that result in a dominant gander—and this conflict is at the heart of his essay. He seems not to notice how at the margins of a flock they bond with each other—two old ganders, for example, keeping each other company. It seems to White that geese assume such unusual positions for sex that they've consulted "one of the modern sex manuals." Goslings are "innocent" and helpless. When I came across the gander White singled out as "a real dandy, full of pompous thoughts and surly gestures," I scribbled in the margin, "oh, boy."

During ten years of living among geese and observing them closely, I have come to the obvious conclusion that they live in a goose-centric world, with goose rules and goose urgencies. More so than ducks, which I find passive and unsociable, geese have a well-known flocking instinct, a tendency to the gaggle. This is enjoyable to watch until you realize that if there is more than one gander in the flock, they will fight for dominance, often quite vocally.

Their sounds vary in pitch and urgency, according to the occasion, from wheedling murmurs of reedy ingratiation, along with the silent scissoring of the beak, as they step near knowing you might have food, to the triumphant squawk and wing-flapping of the gander after he has successfully put to flight one of his rivals. In between are the ark-ark-ark of recognition and alarm when the geese see or hear a stranger approach. Geese have remarkable powers of perception (famously, geese warned the Romans of the Gallic invasion in 390 b.c.); the hiss of warning, almost snake-like, the beak wide open, the agitated honk with an outstretched neck, and—among many other goose noises—the great joyous cry of the guarding gander after his mate has laid an egg and gotten off her nest. Ducks quack, loudly or softly, but geese are large eloquent vocalizers, and each distinct breed has its own repertoire of phrases.

My first geese began as three wobbly goslings, scarcely a day old, two ganders and a goose. The goose became attached to one of the ganders—or perhaps the other way round; the superfluous gander became attached to me—indeed "imprinted" on me so deeply that even years later he will come when called, let his feathers be groomed, scratched and smoothed, and will sit on my lap without stirring, in an astonishing show of security and affection. Konrad Lorenz describes this behavior as resulting from a gosling's first contact. Affection is of course the wrong word—mateship is more exact; my gander had found a partner in me because his mother was elsewhere and no other goose was available.

Every day of the year my geese range over six sunny Hawaiian acres. Penning or staking them, as some gozzards do in northern latitudes, is unthinkable. White mentions such captivity in his essay but makes no judgment: it is of course cruel confinement, maddening big birds, which need lots of space for browsing, rummaging and often flying low. When it comes time to sex young geese, the process is quite simple: you tip the birds upside down and look at the vent in their nether parts—a gander has a penis, a goose doesn't. A little later—weeks rather than months—size and shape are the indicators; the gander is up to a third bigger than the goose.

White never mentions the breed of his geese, another unhelpful aspect of his essay, but if they were Embdens, the gander would be 30 pounds at maturity and the goose five to ten pounds lighter; English gray geese are bigger, China geese a bit smaller, and so forth, but always the gander heavier than his mate. I have raised Toulouse geese, China geese, Embdens and English grays. Toulouse are usually overwhelmed by the Embdens, which seem to me to have the best memories and the largest range of sounds. Embdens are also the most teachable, the most patient. China geese are tenacious in battle, with a powerful beak, though a full-grown English gray gander can hold its ground and often overcome that tenacity.

Spring is egg-laying time. When there is a clutch of ten or a dozen eggs, the goose sits on them and stays there in a nest made of twigs and her own fluffy breast feathers. The goose must turn her eggs several times a day, to spread the heat evenly. Performing this operation hardly means withdrawing from the world, as White suggests. Though a sitting goose has a greatly reduced appetite, even the broodiest goose gets up from her nest now and then, covers her warm eggs with feathers and straw and goes for a meal and a drink. The gander stands vigil and, unusually possessive in his parental phase, fights off any other lurking ganders. When the goslings finally appear, they strike me as amazingly precocious—indeed the scientific word for their condition is precocial, which means they are covered with soft feathers and capable of independent activity almost from the moment of hatching. After a few days they show all the traits of adult behavior, adopting threat postures and hissing when they are fearful.

An established gander will carefully scrutinize new goslings introduced into his flock. It is simply a bewildered gander being a gander, acting out a protective, perhaps paternal possessive response. It is acting on instinct, gauging where the goslings fit in to his society. Their survival depends on it.

Geese develop little routines, favorite places to forage, though they range widely and nibble everything; they get to like certain shady spots, and through tactical fighting, using opportunities, they establish leadership; they stay together, they roam, and even the losers in the leadership battles remain as part of the flock. White's geese, which had to endure the hard Maine winters, were often confined to a barn or a pen, which are prisons producing perverse over-reactive, defensive, aggressive behavior, as all prisons do.


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