Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Birds by Anna Botsford Comstock
Handbook of Nature Study: Birds by  Anna Botsford Comstock


Teacher's Story

dropcap image O be called a goose should be considered most complimentary, for of all the birds the goose is probably the most intelligent. An observant lady who keeps geese on her farm assures me that no animal, not even dog or horse, has the intelligence of the goose. She says that these birds learn a lesson after a few repetitions, and surely her geese were patterns of obedience. While I was watching them one morning, they started for the brook via the corn field; she called to them sharply, "No, no, you mustn't go that way!" They stopped and conferred; she spoke again and they waited, looking at her as if to make up their minds to this exercise of self-sacrifice; but when she spoke the third time they left the corn field and took the other path to the brook. She could bring her geese into their house at any time of day by calling to them, "Home, home!" As soon as they heard these words, they would start and not stop until the last one was housed.

In ancient Greece maidens made pets of geese; and often there was such a devotion between the bird and girl that when the latter died her statue with that of the goose was carved on her burial tablet. The loyalty of a pet goose came under the observation of Miss Ada Georgia. A lone gander was the special pet of a small boy in Elmira, N. Y., who took sole care of him. The bird obeyed commands like a dog but would never let his little master out of his sight if he could avoid it; occasionally he would appear in the school yard, where the pupils would tease him by pretending to attack his master at the risk of being whipped with his wings so severely that it was a test of bravery among the boys to so challenge him. His fidelity to his master was extreme; once when the boy was ill in bed, the bird wandered about the yard honking disconsolately and refused to eat; he was driven to the side of the house where his master could look from the window and he immediately cheered up, took his food and refused to leave his post beneath the window while the illness lasted.


The goose is a stately bird whether on land or water; its long legs give it good proportions when walking, and the neck, being so much longer than that of the duck, gives an appearance of grace and dignity. The duck on the other hand is beautiful only when on the water or on the wing; its short legs, placed far back and far out at the sides, make it a most ungraceful walker. The beak of the goose is harder in texture and is not flat like the duck's; no wonder the bird was a favorite with the ancient Greeks, for the high ridge from the beak to the forehead resembles much the famous Grecian nose. The plumage of geese is very beautiful and abundant and for this reason they are profitable domestic birds. The "picking" occurs late in summer when the feathers are nearly ready to be molted; at this time the geese flap their wings often and set showers of loose feathers flying. A stocking or a bag is slipped over the bird's head and she is turned breast side up, with her head firmly between the knees or under the arm of the picker. The tips of the feathers are seized with the fingers and come out easily; only the breast, the under parts and the feathers beneath the wings are plucked. Geese do not seem to suffer while being plucked except through the temporary inconvenience and ignominy of having their heads thrust into a bag; it hurts their dignity more than their bodies.

The wings of geese are very large and beautiful; although our domestic geese have lost their powers of flight to a great extent, yet they often stretch their wings and take little flying hops, teetering along as if they can scarcely keep to earth; this must surely be reminiscent of the old instinct for traveling in the skies. The tail of the goose is a half circle and is spread when flying; although it is short, it seems to be sufficiently long to act as a rudder. The legs of the goose are much longer than those of the duck; they are not set so far back toward the rear of the body, and, therefore, the goose is the much better runner of the two. The track made by the goose's foot is a triangle with two scallops on one side made by the webs between the three front toes; the hind toe is placed high up; the foot and the unfeathered portion of the leg, protected by scales, are used as oars when the bird is swimming. When she swims forward rapidly, her feet extend out behind her and act on the principle of a propeller; but when swimming around in the pond she uses them at almost right angles to the body. Although they are such excellent oars they are also efficient on land; although when running, her body may waddle somewhat, her head and neck are held aloft in stately dignity.

The Toulouse are our common gray geese; the Embdens are pure white with orange bill and bright blue eyes. The African geese have a black head with a large black knob on the base of the black bill; the neck is long, snakelike, light gray, with a dark stripe down the back; the wings and tail are dark gray; there is a dewlap at the throat. The brown Chinese geese have also a black beak and a black knob at the base of the bill. The neck is light brown with a dull yellowish stripe down the neck. The back is dark brown, breast, wings and tail grayish brown. The white Chinese are shaped like the brown Chinese but the knob and bill are orange and the eyes light blue.

The Habits of Geese

Geese are monogamous and are loyal to their mates. Old-fashioned people declare that they choose their mates on Saint Valentine's Day, but this is probably a pretty myth; when once mated, the pair live together year after year until one dies; an interesting instance of this is one of the traditions in my own family. A fine pair of geese belonging to my pioneer grandfather had been mated for several years and had reared handsome families; but one spring a conceited young gander fell in love with the old goose, and, as he was young and lusty, he whipped her legitimate lord and master and triumphantly carried her away, although she was manifestly disgusted with this change in her domestic fortunes. The old gander sulked and refused to be comforted by the blandishments of any young goose whatever. Later the old pair disappeared from the farmyard and the upstart gander was left wifeless. It was inferred that the old couple had run away with each other into the encompassing wilderness and much sympathy was felt for them because of this sacrifice of their lives for loyalty. However, this was misplaced sentiment, for later in the summer the happy pair was discovered in a distant "slashing" with a fine family of goslings and were all brought home in triumph. The old gander, while not able to cope with his rival, was still able to trounce any of the animal marauders which approached his home and family.

The goose lines her nest with down and the soft feathers which she plucks from her breast. The gander is very devoted to his goose while she is sitting; he talks to her in gentle tones and is fierce in her defence. The eggs are about twice as large as those of the hen and have the ends more rounded. The period of incubation is four weeks. The goslings are beautiful little creatures, covered with soft down, and have large, bright eyes. The parents give them most careful attention from the first. One family which I studied consisted of the parents and eighteen goslings. The mother was a splendid African bird; she walked with dignified step, her graceful neck assuming serpentine curves; and she always carried her beak "lifted," which gave her an appearance of majestic haughtiness. The father was just a plebeian white gander, probably of Embden descent, but he was a most efficient protector. The family always formed a procession in going to the creek, the majestic mother at the head, the goslings following her and the gander bringing up the rear to be sure there were no stragglers; if a gosling strayed away or fell behind, the male went after it, pushing it back into the family circle. When entering the coop at night he pushed the little ones in gently with his bill; when the goslings took their first swim both parents gently pushed them into the water, "rooted them in," as the farmer said. Any attempt to take liberties with the brood was met with bristling anger and defiance on the part of the gander; the mistress of the farm told me that he had whipped her black and blue when she tried to interfere with the goslings.

The gander and goose always show suspicion and resentment by opening the mouth wide, making a hissing noise, showing the whole round tongue in mocking defiance. When the gander attacks, he thrusts his head forward, even with or below the level of his back, and seizes his victim firmly with his hard, toothed bill so that it cannot get away, and then with his strong wings beats the life out of it. I remember vividly a whipping which a gander gave me when I was a child, holding me fast by the blouse while he laid on the blows.

Geese feed much more largely upon land vegetation than do ducks; a good growth of clover and grass make excellent pasture for them; in the water, they feed upon water plants but do not eat insects and animals to any extent.

Undoubtedly goose language is varied and expresses many things. Geese talk to each other and call from afar; they shriek in warning and in general make such a turmoil that people do not enjoy it. The goslings, even when almost grown, keep up a constant "pee wee, pee wee," which is nerve-racking. There is a good opportunity for some interesting investigations in studying out just what the different notes of the geese mean.

The goose is very particular about her toilet; she cleans her breast and back and beneath her wings with her bill; and she cleans her bill with her foot; she also cleans the top of her head with her foot and the under side of her wing with the foot of that side. When oiling her feathers, she starts the oil gland flowing with her beak, then rubs her head over the gland until it is well oiled; she then uses her head as a "dauber" to apply the oil to the feathers of her back and breast. When thus polishing her feathers, she twists the head over and over and back and forth to add to its efficiency.

Wild Geese

dropcap image HERE is a sound, that, to the weather-wise farmer, means cold and snow, even though it is heard through the hazy atmosphere of an Indian summer day; and that is the honking of wild geese as they pass on their southward journey. And there is not a more interesting sight anywhere in the autumn landscape than the wedge-shaped flock of these long-necked birds with their leader at the front apex. "The wild goose trails his harrow," sings the poet; but only the aged can remember the old-fashioned harrow which makes this simile graphic. The honking which reveals to us the passing flock, before our eyes can discern the birds against the sky, is the call of the wise old gander who is the leader, to those following him, and their return salute. He knows the way on this long thousand-mile journey, and knows it by the topography of the country. If ever fog or storm hides the earth from his view, he is likely to become confused, to the dismay of his flock, which follows him to the earth with many lonely and distressful cries.

The northern migration takes place in April and May, and the southern from October to December. The journey is made with stops for rest and refreshment at certain selected places, usually some secluded pond or lake. The food of wild geese consists of water plants, seeds and corn, and some of the smaller animals living in water. Although the geese come to rest on the water, they go to the shore to feed. In California, the wild geese are dreaded visitors of the cornfields, and men with guns are employed regularly to keep them off.

The nests are made of sticks lined with down, usually along the shores of streams, sometimes on tree stumps and sometimes in deserted nests of the osprey. There are only four or five eggs laid and both parents are devoted to the young, the gander bravely defending his nest and family from the attacks of any enemies.

Although there are several species of wild geese on the Atlantic Coast, the one called by this name is usually the Canada goose. This bird is a superb creature, brown above and gray beneath, with head, neck, tail, bill and feet of black. These black trimmings are highly ornamental and, as if to emphasize them, there is a white crescent-shaped "bib" extending from just back of the eyes underneath the head. This white patch is very striking, and gives one the impression of a bandage for sore throat. It is regarded as a call-color, and is supposed to help keep the flock together; the side tail-coverts are also white and make another guide to follow.


Wild geese flying in even ranks.

Photographed directly underneath by A. R. Dugmore.

Courtesy of Country Life in America.

Often some wounded or wearied bird of the migrating flock spends the winter in farmyards with domestic geese. One morning a neighbor of mine found that during the night a wild gander, injured in some way, had joined his flock. The stranger was treated with much courtesy by its new companions as well as by the farmer's family and soon seemed perfectly at home. The next spring he mated with one of the domestic geese. In the late summer, my neighbor, mindful of wild geese habits, clipped the wings of the gander so that he would be unable to join any passing flock of his wild relatives. As the migrating season approached, the gander became very uneasy; not only was he uneasy and unhappy always but he insisted that his wife share his misery of unrest. He spent days in earnest remonstrance with her and, lifting himself by his cropped wings to the top of the barnyard fence, he insisted that she keep him company on this, for web feet, uneasy resting place. Finally, after many days of tribulation, the two valiantly started south on foot. News was received of their progress for some distance and then they were lost to us. During the winter our neighbor visited a friend living eighteen miles to the southward and found in his barnyard the errant pair. They had become tired of migrating by tramping and had joined the farmer's flock; but we were never able to determine the length of time required for this journey.



Leading thought—Geese are the most intelligent of the domesticated birds, and they have many interesting habits.

Method—This lesson should not be given unless there are geese where the pupils may observe them. The questions should be given a few at a time and answered individually by the pupils after the observations are made.


1. What is the chief difference between the appearance of a goose and a duck? How does the beak of the goose differ from that of the duck in shape and in texture? Describe the nostrils and their situation.

2. What is the difference in shape between the neck of the goose and that of the duck?

3. What can you say about the plumage of geese? How are geese "picked?" At what time of year? From what parts of the body are the feathers plucked?

4. Are the wings of the goose large compared with the body? How do geese exercise their wings? Describe the tail of the goose and how it is used.

5. How do the legs and feet of the goose differ from those of the duck? Describe the goose's foot. How many toes are webbed? Where is the other toe? What is the shape of the track made by the goose's foot? Which portions of the legs are used for oars? When the goose is swimming forward where are her feet? When turning around how does she use them? Does the goose waddle when walking or running as a duck does? Why? Does a goose toe-in when walking? Why?

6. Describe the shape and color of the following breeds of domestic geese: The Toulouse, the Embden, the African, and Chinese.

Habits of Geese

1. What is the chief food of geese? What do they find in the water to eat? How does their food differ from that of ducks?

2. How do geese differ from hens in the matter of mating and nesting? At what time of year do geese mate? Does a pair usually remain mated for life?

3. Describe the nest and compare the eggs with those of hens. Describe the young goslings in general appearance. With what are they covered? What care do the parents give to their goslings? Describe how the parents take their family afield. How do they induce their goslings to go into the water for the first time? How do they protect them from enemies?

4. How does the gander or goose fight? What are the chief weapons? How is the head held when the attack is made?

5. How does the goose clean her feathers, wings and feet? How does she oil her feathers? Where does she get the oil and with what does she apply it?

6. How much of goose language do you understand? What is the note of alarm? How is defiance and distrust expressed? How does a goose look when hissing? What is the constant note of the gosling?

7. Give such instances as you may know illustrating the intelligence of geese, their loyalty and bravery.

8. Write an English Theme on "The Canada Goose, its appearance, nesting habits, and migrations."

Supplementary reading—Birds that Hunt and are Hunted, Blanchan; "In Quest of Waptonk The Wild," Northern Trails, Long; "The Homesickness of Kehonka," Kindred of the Wild, Roberts; Wild Geese, Celia Thaxter.


A sea-gull.

Photo by G. K. Gilbert.

 Table of Contents  |  Index  |  Home  | Previous: The Cardinal Grosbeak  |  Next: The Turkey
Copyright (c) 2005 - 2020   Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.