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Cotton Patch Geese: How I Rescued These Historic Weeder Geese

9/24/2010 3:46:29 PM

Tags: geese, poultry, heritage breeds

 cotton patch geese saddleback 

When I was a kid in southwestern Arkansas during the Great Depression of the 1930s, I became fascinated by the small autosexing geese that were everywhere. They were amazingly beautiful. Each was quite independent but was, at the same time, closely attached to the other geese of its gaggle, as a flock of geese is called. It was understood that a gander (a male goose) and a goose (a female goose) mated for life. The two worked as a team in perpetuating their kind.

Apparently, the geese that I knew as a kid had no official breed name. If they had a breed name, I never heard the name used. No name was needed because they were the only kind of geese in the area. During migration, wild geese flew over and occasionally a gaggle would stop for a short time, but they didn’t stay.

Typical of most of the southern part of the United States, my area was cotton country. Grass grew in abundance in the cotton fields and, in keeping with long tradition, cotton farmers used geese to eat that grass. Geese were cheap labor for keeping the cotton fields clean, and they can weed other crops, such as corn and strawberries, too. Cotton fields were typically referred to as cotton patches; so, we present-day fanciers of this common goose have dubbed it the Cotton Patch goose. Apparently, this goose is the goose with the pink bill and feet that was brought to the American Colonies by the English in the early 1600s. The breed is autosexing in that its gender is evidenced by its color at the time of hatch (males are yellow as goslings, females are gray).

There are two varieties. When they are adults, the ganders of both varieties are basically white with blue eyes — “basically white” because usually the ganders have some gray on their wings, tails, backs and shanks. Females of the solid variety are basically dove-gray/brown with some white markings while the females of the saddleback variety are basically white with a dove-gray/brown saddle over their backs and wings, and they have dove-gray/brown leg shanks and heads. The eyes of the solid females are brown while the eyes of the saddleback female may be either brown or blue.

cotton patch geese solid 

The Nesting Process 

When building a nest, the goose would select a place and would dig into the ground making a hole with her bill. The diameter of the hole was about the length of her body. She would leave a small mound in the center of the nest, supposedly to make it easier for her to turn her eggs. Turning the eggs each day was a part of keeping them in good condition for hatching.

When the goose had finished digging the place for her nest, the pair would gather small sticks, dry weeds and dry grass and place these around the nest hole that the female had dug. Over the next several days, the goose would lay her clutch of about 10 or fewer big white eggs. Usually, she would lay one egg every two days. After laying her egg on a given day, she would carefully cover all the eggs in the nest with some of the dry leaves, dry grass, and small sticks out of which the nest had been built. When she walked away from the nest, it was so well camouflaged that it was difficult for hawks, crows, opossums or other predators to find the eggs.

When the goose had finished laying her clutch of eggs, she would “take the nest” to sit on the eggs day and night for the 30-day incubation period. The only time she would leave the nest would be to find something to eat and to go to the pond for a swim. After her swim, she would rush back to the nest while her feathers were wet. By getting back on the nest while wet, she kept plenty of humidity in the nest to aid the eggs in hatching. For the full 30 days while the goose was setting, the gander would stand guard by the nest. When the goose was off the nest, he would sit for awhile on the eggs.

As the goslings (baby geese) hatched, the gander was there to take care of them so the goose could continue her vigil on the nest. Apparently, a gosling is hungry the moment it hatches, because it begins to wander from under its mother searching for grass shortly after it hatches. At that point the gander assumes the care of the gosling. When all the goslings have hatched and the mother leaves the nest with them, the gander is just as much involved as the goose in caring for and protecting the goslings. The parents and the goslings immediately become a close-knit gaggle.

Rescuing a Breed 

In 1950, I had a pair of the solid-colored geese that I kept in a large fenced area with my chickens. The goose set on her eggs and the pair raised the goslings. It was enjoyable to study the goose family. As late as 1952 when I left Arkansas, some farmers were still using geese to rid their cotton fields of grass. There was no scarcity of geese. How surprised I was when, in the mid 1980s, I went to Arkansas to purchase some of these geese and found that they had disappeared from the scene. It was that surprise that resulted in years of searching for enough of these lovely gentle geese to rescue the breed from extinction.

 cotton patch geese 1955 

My search for Cotton Patch geese has been challenging, disappointing, exciting, frustrating and rewarding. At times, all these have occurred at once. After making numerous contacts by letter, telephone and Internet, and after traveling more than 10,000 miles in five states over a period of two years, I was successful in finding a few gaggles that were fairly representative of the breed. However, not one of the gaggles found was pure. In every instance, to some degree the breed had been contaminated with blood from other breeds.

All the breeding stock that I was able to acquire had to be rigidly culled, and several of the lines had to be eliminated. I have made progress breeding out the foreign blood that had been introduced; however, there is much more work to be done. At present, I have 14 carefully selected and proven breeding pairs. About half the pairs are of the Solid variety and about half are of the Saddleback variety. The goose of one of my best producing pairs is half and half.

As I note the progress that I have made, I am delighted. However, when I realize how many more years will be required to bring this lovely goose back to its former perfection (and to reach the point of being secure about its escape from extinction), I become deeply concerned that I will not live to see all this accomplished. I am concerned that there may be no one with my depth of interest in preserving this super little goose to continue my work. Before the goslings begin to pip their shells in the spring of 2011, I will have celebrated my 84th birthday.

It’s my hope that someone will become as interested as I in saving this breed, will be in a position to take about half my select breeders as foundation stock, will allow me to share the information I have about those breeders, and will work in tandem with me in accomplishing my goals regarding the breed. Unless this happens, the progress that I have made in rescuing the breed from extinction will be lost and this small, calm-tempered and beautiful goose will be no more. If you are able to take on such a noble and ambitious project, please contact me.

Dr. Tom T. Walker
278 Porter Road
Bastrop, TX 78602

cotton patch geese pair 

If you’d like to help but aren’t able to keep geese, please consider a donation to the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy for the conservation and promotion of endangered breeds of livestock and poultry such as Cotton Patch geese. 

Photos: Courtesy Tom T. Walker 



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Post a comment below.

 

Serina Harvey
2/17/2011 7:26:26 AM
Just wanted to post a note that I picked up the majority of Tom's geese out in Texas (Wow what a trip that was) and took them back to Flip Flop Ranch (www.flipflopranch.com) in California. It's a nonprofit that's raises endangered heritage breeds and also provides a home for endangered abused and often pregnant women. I also put up a website for the cotton patch geese www.cottonpatchgeese.com if anyone's interested. It's small, but I'm hoping to expand it to include more information about the geese. Serina at Flip Flop Ranch FlipFlopRanch@gmail.com

Melissa Prosser
2/14/2011 6:32:02 PM
Tom, Count me in! I'm eager to learn. I hope that you are able to continue your work many more years than you expect, and appreciate your efforts to ensure the breed's chances of survival. I think that perhaps the timing will work out well, though. Farming is making a comeback, and people are realizing that the heritage plants and animals may once again be the key to surviving other "Depressions". I'm almost 30, originally from Alabama, and never saw the geese weeding cotton, but love their story. I have raised other types of geese before. I started small scale hobby farming when farming wasn't "cool" and in a place it wasn't a very common thing for young people to do. I've been made fun of plenty for raising chicks and picking tomatoes, hehe! I'm happy to see the times are changing, though, and farming using the old ways is once again becoming popular. I get the chance to teach people what I know, while they're all so excited about these suddenly popular "new" hobbies. I do not have any geese at the moment, but I have other types of poultry and would like to add small, friendly, preferably autosexing geese. I've been looking into cotton patch (want both saddleback and solids), shetlands, and minis. In the future I may even get to move to a bigger place, but right now, I STILL have more than enough room and weeding work for a small flock here in Northern Utah. I keep breeds I love, and do my best to help preserve them. If I move, they'll go with me! ~ Melissa

Troy Griepentrog_1
1/5/2011 9:19:16 AM
Chris M., They look a lot like Pilgrim geese don't they? But the female Pilgrim geese are all solid (no Saddleback variety). Pilgrim geese also have orange bills and feet, but Cotton Patch geese have pink bills and feet (or at least they should). http://albc-usa.org/cpl/waterfowl/cottonpatch.html Troy Griepentrog Senior Associate Editor MOTHER EARTH NEWS

ChrisM
1/5/2011 8:49:12 AM
Aren't those Pilgrim geese? https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Pilgrim_Goose

Michael
11/30/2010 2:13:01 AM
I have always been interested saving the Cotton Patch breed.

Diana Sidebottom
10/26/2010 3:10:16 PM
Mr. Walker, Hello from Quinlan, Texas. If you still have some of your geese, I an very interested. We currently have six grey Tolouse, 60 acres, a big pond, and a 800 sq ft. enclosed/screened "goose house". We have raised geese in the past through incubation, since our geese are not good sitters. Will it be a problem to have the tolouse geese also? I have been interested in saving endangered species for several years, but have not really wanted to have cows or hogs again, so this sounds perfect. Please email me to let me know. Thanks, sidebottrd@live.com

Charlie
9/25/2010 9:49:44 PM
I would love to help, unfortunately right now we live in a subdivision with a small yard. We have a small farm in Northwest Arkansas but will not be there full time for a few years. Regards

Tom Roberts
9/25/2010 5:37:04 PM
Dr. Walker, I hope you are keeping up with your post. A few years ago, while living in Lubbock (hello to a fellow Texan) the cotton and soybean farmers in the area were still using the geese. We always enjoyed driving around in the fields and seeing the large gaggles of geese working the weeds. I hope the Texas High Plains was one of the areas you researched for weeder geese.










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