Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
She is quite the sight: a 12-year-old, 20-pound Pomeranian in the role of Mother Goose to 15 Saxony ducklings. She is in her element as guardian, head up searching for predators and effectively dispatching all challengers.
She is the last of her breed on our farm, the last of what was once a flock of 40 of this impressive, handsome, tasty fowl. Even in a large flock she stood out as a big girl. The first season we had her, we assumed she was a gander from size, temperament, and bearing. Even when she crowded onto a nest and pushed out other geese, we assumed "he" was just helping out, a willing domestic partner, if you will. When she stayed on the nest and hatched out a dozen or so goslings, we realized our error.
Her partner – Pomeranians, an old German breed, mate for life – was a beautiful gander and a fierce protector of her, the goslings, and the farm. When we still had a whole flock, virtually nothing was more impressive than seeing twenty breeding pairs of charcoal-and-white geese turn in unison as an act of protecting their babies and charge the UPS man. Flapping wings, honking at decibels so loud it must be heard to be believed, they are an intimidating presence. The UPS man agreed, agreed that he would remain in the truck and we would come to him if we wanted our package. He was only the latest in a long line of visitors so convinced.
As the years have progressed, we have gradually sold or eaten or otherwise reduced our flock of Poms. For the last six years, only the lone pair remained: the big girl and her man. They had become pets, lawn ornaments, a comfortable and expected presence around the barnyard. Each January for ten years, she laid a clutch of eggs. And with the passage of time, the number of eggs and the viability of the hatch decreased. Finally, two years ago, the gander disappeared. I found his remains in the woods a month later, the telltale signs of an attack by coyotes. The goose spent the next few months forlornly honking, mourning his loss. It was heartbreaking to watch.
For the past two seasons the old bird has continued to lay eggs – not fertile, of course – in the barn. We let her set for as long as she will. Thirty-five days' gestation is typical for Pomeranians, but she will set for as much as a month and a half. Usually the dogs will risk her wrath and steal the eggs, one by one, so that the last couple of weeks she is setting on nothing. But she steadfastly persists in this instinctive act of maternity.
This year, during what would have been her last week before a normal hatch, we bought a batch of day-old ducklings from a nearby farm. We installed the ducklings in the brooder, a heat-lamped wire cage a foot or so off the ground, about twenty feet away from but out of sight of the goose on her nest. The next morning, the goose had abandoned her station and had taken up residence in front of the brooder. What a miracle it must have seemed after several fruitless years to wake up and find all of her babies hatched and in a nearby pen!
The goose did not leave the outside of the pen for three weeks. Hissing and flapping her wings at any who came near, she took to her role of sentinel with life-or-death urgency. Sitting on the porch one evening a month back, we heard her 300 feet away, unleashing Holy Hell out at the brooder. Cindy jumped up and ran out to check. She returned moments later, yelling enroute that a large black rat snake was eating a duckling. The goose was squawking in alarm, flapping her wings and running at the wire pen, frantically trying to get to the snake. I dispatched the snake with my 410, and mother and babies settled down almost immediately.
Three weeks later Cindy turned the ducklings out of the brooder. Since that day the goose never leaves their side, maternally herding them together and away from potential danger. She is quite the sight, with her big frame and all the smaller ducks clustered around her, moving across the barnyard or pasture – a mother again, after all these years.
Read more about Brian's daily adventures farming at his Winged Elm Farm blog.
Photos by Brian Miller