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.
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.
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
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