Despite having acquired a reputation for stupidity, geese show signs of great sensitivity and intelligence. Many species mate for life, and the death of a loved one provokes behaviour that is remarkably similar to our own. They honk mournfully, stop eating, hunch up their feathers and can remain that way for months. If a partner is shot down, they will return to earth to stand vigil next to its corpse. Reunited couples perform a ‘triumph ceremony’ – a combination of dance and song which re-enacts their courtship.
The French ornithologist Christian Moullec has taught a group of 30 endangered Lesser White-fronted Geese (Anser erythropus) a new migratory path. Bonding with them as goslings, he led them the 1,000 miles between wildlife sanctuaries in Germany and Sweden flying a microlight, a journey they repeated the following year on their own. They are now so well trained that Moellec and his ‘flock’ regularly appear as the star turn at air shows.
Although farmyard geese rarely fly, the wild birds are amazing long-distance aviators. Six million Lesser Snow Geese (Chen caerulescens caerulescens) travel the 4,000 miles between the Arctic and the Gulf of Mexico twice a year. The Bar-Headed Goose (Anser indicus) migrates from Central Asia to India over the Himalayas at a height of 29,000 feet. The swirl of air created by flying in V formation produces more lift and a clearer view ahead for each bird. They lose altitude by ‘whiffling’ – a spiralling nosedive, which sometimes leaves them flying upside down.
If you feel the urge, don't be afraid to go on a wild goose chase. What do you think wild geese are for anyway?
Geese have a number of remarkable uses, including (but not limited to):
1) Food. Scrooge bought a goose for Tiny Tim’s family. The poet Lord Byron would buy geese to fatten for Christmas but would become so attached to them he couldn’t kill them. He ended up with four pet geese.
2) Writing. The word penna is Latin for feather. 'Quink' (the ink developed by Parker Pens) is an old name for a Brent Goose.
3) Golf. Early golf balls were made of goose feathers enclosed in a leather ball.
4) Polite swearing. Rhadamanthus, King of Crete, forbade swearing ‘by the gods’. As a result Socrates, for one, would swear ‘by the goose’ or ‘by the dog’.
5) Substitute lavatory paper. The writer François Rabelais (who wrote under the anagrammatical pseudonym Alcofribas Nasier) penned the following in his work Gargantua:
'I have, answered Gargantua, by a long and curious experience, found out a means to wipe my bum, the most lordly, the most excellent, and the most convenient that ever was seen… I say and maintain, that of all torcheculs, arsewisps, bumfodders, tail-napkins, bunghole cleansers, and wipe-breeches, there is none in the world comparable to the neck of a goose, that is well downed, if you hold her head betwixt your legs.'
Until the 19th century, Christmas geese were walked to London from East Anglia in flocks over 1,000 strong.
A goose flies by a chart which the Royal Geographical Society could not mend.
Geese were domesticated about 3,000 years ago in Ancient Egypt from the wild Greylag goose ('lag' is an old word for goose, so we should really just call them greylags). Their domestication had more to do with sex than food. Wild greylags were the focus of fertility cults throughout the ancient world and goose fat was considered a powerful aphrodisiac. The famous geese on the Capitoline Hill, who saved Rome from the Gauls in 390 BC, were being kept as sexual talismans, not ‘guard dogs’.
A 'gaggle' only describes a flock of geese on water. In the air they are known as a 'skein'.
To save money on chimney-sweeps, skint Victorians used to push a live goose down their chimneys.
In Egyptian mythology the world was created by the Nile Goose, which laid the cosmic egg.
Let the long contention cease!
Geese are swans and swans are geese.