A gift of goslings started this goose tale

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer
Editor Colleen Kottke and her son, Ben, spend time with their young geese Happy and Jolly.

Never having owned a pet that was truly mine, I was open to raising a wide variety of critters when I married a farmer. Through the years I've cared for orphan lambs, dogs, cats, salamanders, rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, chickens, ducks, steers, and a gaggle of geese.

I received my first pair of Toulouse goslings as a birthday present from a relative who knew of my fascination with the web-footed creatures. Not knowing their gender, I named them Happy and Jolly and would figure out the rest later.

Thanks to Mother Nature's miracle of imprinting, they immediately bonded with me and my young son, Ben. In no time the pair stood eye to eye with my toddler as they trailed behind him as he criss-crossed the yard, making his way from the sandbox to the swing, then on to the wading pool and back on the porch. Better than a watchdog, these feathered companions stood watch over the little boy, honking and hissing if an intruder dared step foot on the property.

If Ben was inside sleeping, the duo would sit on the porch and wait for him to reappear. One day as I stepped outside during nap time, I noticed the spot on the porch where the geese dozed was strangely empty. My neighbor's calls from across the road drew my attention. "Do you think you could call these two back home?" she asked.

Sitting regally by the front door next to her swan planter was Happy and Jolly, refusing to let her enter the house. After cleaning up their mess and herding them back home, we erected an enclosure to curb their neighborhood exploration. 

Editor Colleen Kottke's first foray into raising geese started with a pair of Toulouse geese named Happy and Jolly.

The following spring the pair holed up inside an old doghouse and soon a nest began filling with eggs. You know the old adage 'don't count your chicks – in this case goslings – before they're hatched'? Was I in for a surprise when the number of eggs kept increasing and no babies appeared. Well, the notion of the faithful gander sitting side by side with his goose was dashed when we witnessed the birds stealing eggs from one another and tucking them under their downy bottoms. Putting two and two together we realized Happy and Jolly were both females.

The next step was to remove the eggs from the broody geese. If you have never dealt with rotten goose eggs, you will remember the odor for a lifetime.

As time went on, my husband's uncle became enchanted with geese as well. Long retired from farming, Uncle Chet had more time on his hands and bigger ambitions that included incubating eggs of several breeds including Embden and African geese. With my small (but expanding) flock's lousy track record for hatching goslings, I sent over what I hoped were six fertilized eggs.

Under the old man's careful eye, he was able to hatch out four goslings, one of which was adopted by my son, Jake, who named the little Toulouse gander "Freckles". Although many of our birds ended up in the freezers of friends and family, Freckles was pardoned from this fate, instead living a life of ease and fending off the futile predatory advances of our cat and attacking our dim-witted collie.

Because geese imprint soon after hatching, Freckles developed a close bond with his young owner.

As Jake grew into his teen years, he had less time to devote to Freckles who had become cantankerous as he aged. Knowing the average lifespan of a domestic goose is anywhere from 20 to 25 years (much to my husband's dismay) Jake felt Freckles might be happier down on the farm, free to roam the sheep pasture that ran adjacent to the creek that cut through the property.

While Freckles distrusted the majority of humans, he did develop an affinity for the flock of Southdown sheep kept in the summer pasture. Each day as the flock meandered down to the creek to nap in the shade under the trees, Freckles dutifully followed behind, keeping watch over his new charges.

He wasn't as amiable toward those attempting to fish down in the Deep Hole near the pasture. As they cast their lines into the water hoping to catch a trout below the surface, the young fishermen kept a wary eye out for the feathered curmudgeon who would ease into the water upstream and nonchalantly swim toward the fishing hole, pretending to graze along the banks while zeroing in on his targets – the bobbers.

More than once we had to corral the outraged gander long enough to free him from the fishing line that would inevitably become tangled around his short, stubby legs.

Suggestions of diverting his attention with a female companion were met with a resounding "No!" from my husband who decreed that our association with geese would end with Freckles' passing. "What about one of those lawn geese ornaments?" my son Dan asked. "He could pretend to have a girlfriend."

Indeed he did, much to the amusement of everyone watching the amorous bird's awkward advances towards his uncooperative plastic partner. This one-sided courtship went on for weeks until a torrential rainstorm flooded the small creek and carried Freckles' lady love away, never to be seen again.

They say geese mate for life and actually mourn when they lose their partner, remaining behind even as the flock moves on. I often think of that funny little gander, waddling up and down the sides of the creek as though searching for someone or something. I can't lie, it still breaks my heart a bit.