Keeping geese is a great pleasure, and is not difficult if you have a suitable place. However, they do have specific requirements not shared with chickens and ducks. These questions are among the most common asked on the Facebook group 'Geese Goose Gander' and the answers have been composed by Jenny Chase and Björn Holzhauer. We are trying to give the best advice possible based on our experience, but we do not know everything and we cannot guarantee that our answers will work for you. Chris Ashton's book 'Keeping Geese: Breeds and Management' is useful further reading.
Q. What do I need for keeping domestic geese?
Geese are social animals, and should not be kept alone. We find pairs of a goose and a gander seem to be happiest, but same-sex groups, trios and larger groups also work fine provided they have enough space. Ganders will usually fight in the breeding season (January to July in northern Europe) if they have females with them.
Q. What do I feed my adult geese?
This section applies to domestic European breeds that are descended from greylag geese, such as our West of England geese (and Embdens, Toulouse, Sebastopols, Franconians etc). Some wild species of geese may have other particular requirements, for example the seeds of certain types of grass – seek specialist advice on these.
The main food of geese should be grass, clover or dandelion, with other plants also appreciated. If they have good grazing, you cannot go too far wrong.
While geese can survive only on grass in summer, additional food is needed in winter, when female geese are laying eggs, and for goslings that are still growing. The most suitable food is something specifically formulated for waterfowl or wildfowl (we use Landi Wild-und Ziergeflügelfutter or just corn in winter, Melior layer pellets when the geese are laying, and Melior grower crumbs for goslings, but these brands are specific to Switzerland and you will have to find an agricultural supplier with a suitable product).
Female geese need extra calcium when they are laying (late winter to late spring) to make egg shells. Crushed oystershell can be bought at most feed suppliers, or if you have eggshells these can be sterilised in the oven, crushed and offered. We just pour this onto the ground, and the geese eat it when they need it.
Q. What sort of house should I use for my geese at night?
A goose house should be well ventilated, secure against rats and larger predators, and tall enough for you to easily remove and replace the straw on the floor. Straw and goose muck composts well. Insulation is not necessary, as geese are well adapted for cold conditions. A garden shed with mesh over the windows is fine. Geese will nest in straw, though some people supply car tyres to give the nests structure.
Q. Can I keep geese with chickens and ducks?
Do not shut your geese in a confined space with chickens or ducks, as the geese may kill them in the breeding season. Most geese will be okay in open areas with chickens and ducks provided there is space for the smaller birds to stay out of their way. Young birds raised together will be friendly together, although they will probably need to be split up at least for the night in adulthood.
As always with behavior, observe your birds and take action to separate them if there is a problem. The occasional squabble and loss of a clump of feathers is probably not serious, but some geese have killed multiple chickens and ideally you would fence them apart before this happens.
Q. Do geese mate for life?
Geese are approximately as monogamous as humans. Some form close and lasting lifetime pair bonds, but they can be much more flexible. Konrad Lorenz, who studied geese in a relatively natural situation, found that 15 out of 61 female geese separated voluntarily from their gander (usually after a failed breeding year) during his many years of observation. He also recorded many gay gander pairs and stable breeding groups of a goose and two ganders. (Since incubation is a dangerous activity, his wild flock usually had more ganders than geese, but two geese to a gander is a common arrangement in captivity to optimize egg production and minimize fighting, with spare ganders slaughtered for meat).
While you can keep more geese than ganders, the geese will become sexually frustrated in the breeding season if you keep too many. In general, goose mating is a consensual activity (with an amusing head-dipping display between the two parties which can take place in water or on land) and while geese may sustain some feather damage on the back of their heads from a clumsy gander, this should heal after the breeding season and a goose is happier with her gander than without him.
Q. How do I tell the sex of my geese?
Except for particular breeds of geese such as our West of Englands, the only reliable methods to tell the sex of a goose are DNA testing (you can send feathers off by post for a reasonable fee in most countries - google 'avian DNA testing'), waiting to see if it lays eggs, or vent sexing by someone who knows how to do this.
Behaviour, appearance or voice are not very reliable cues to goose sex. Geese can have gay sex, and they are individuals whose behavior varies according to their situation. Female geese can be just as aggressive as ganders, especially around the nest, and ganders do a lot of the parenting of goslings. Generally, human sexual stereotypes should not be applied to geese (or to humans either).
Q. What breed are my geese?
A representative of a particular breed of domestic animal is one which meets the breed standard, and which will breed true – ie whose offspring will also meet the breed standard if mated with another of the same. Breed standards are established by clubs and organisations such as the British Waterfowl Association or Wasser- und- Grossgeflügel Schweiz, and should set out generally agreed descriptions of venerable breeds of ancient stock. The idea of preserving these breeds is to maintain the genetic diversity of domestic animals, which can be lost when commercial strains are produced in huge numbers for intensive meat or egg production.
The person selling geese should know what breed they are. If they do not know or do not make a point of it, the geese are almost certainly crossbreeds. If you want to buy purebred geese, know what the breed should look like, and check that both the birds you are buying and their parents look like the breed, and that the person selling them is clear about what is special about the breed and has taken measures to prevent crossbreeding. For example, different breeds need to be separated for at least 6 weeks before you start to collect eggs for hatching. Do not rely on goose monogamy to prevent crossbreeding.
We would generally advise people seeking purebred geese not to buy eggs advertised on the internet, particularly by anonymous sellers. There is a lot of fraud and plain sloppy thinking about breeds. Joining an online forum for the breed and approaching certain breeders who post plenty of pictures and are willing to discuss standards directly is much more likely to get you geese of the breed you want.
Q. Does it matter whether my geese are a particular breed or not?
All geese are lovely, and we are not convinced there are significant differences in character between breeds. Geese are individuals. Most people have no plans to exhibit their geese and are perfectly happy with crossbreeds. We would only ask that crossbred geese or those of unknown ancestry not be sold as purebred, as this makes preservation of heritage breeds very difficult.
Some breeds have certain characteristics which will be lost in crossbreeding without it being immediately visible. For example, with our West of England geese, you can tell the sex of the gosling as soon as it hatches. Crossbreds may not have this, although this is not always immediately obvious, and you may mislead people badly by selling crossbreds as autosexing.
Q. How do I get geese to be friendly?
Hand-rearing goslings is the most sure way to make them tame, although geese raised by their parents can get used to human company. Geese are naturally very sociable, recognize human individuals, and form complex flock relationships. Adult geese generally do not like to be stroked or touched (with a few exceptions), but if you spend time with them (a cup of coffee or a glass of wine and a book or laptop are good accessories), they are likely to come to sit with you and talk to you. You can use food treats - especially small amounts of bread, or apples - as a bribe, but this should not be strictly necessary to form a bond with them.
If you raise goslings by hand, they are likely to think of you as part of their flock, which means they will try to gain the top place in the pecking order at some point (probably in their first adult spring). This is absolutely hilarious, but you must not let them get the upper hand or see fear – pick them up firmly and show them that you still are the alpha of the flock, and they should settle down to a good but respectful relationship. They are not being mean, they are simply exhibiting natural flock behaviour.
Q. Are geese aggressive?
Many people are afraid of geese, and geese are excellent at making themselves look large and fierce. They do this either as a defense against predators, or to clarify their position in the flock hierarchy, which includes the humans they know. Don't take it personally.
Generally, this is all bluster, and a gander weighing 8 kilograms does not really want to get into a fight with a human. Hissing, charging when a human is on the other side of the fence, and shaking out wings are mostly intended to show off rather than to signal an attack.
If a goose really does want to bite you, they will just go for it, and while they can leave a nasty bruise they are unlikely to do much worse.
It is important not to show fear, because if you do, they will happily chase you around every day. Hold your arms out to look bigger, stand your ground, and if necessary grab a fierce bird by the neck, pin his wings and pick him up.
A goose will also be very fierce in protection of her nest, and encourage her gander to attack intruders too. This is quite understandable, so try to respect their territory unless you have a good reason to be there.
Q. Should I have goslings?
Goslings are adorable, but they do grow into geese, and most of us do not have room for large numbers of geese over the winter. Before incubating or letting your goose sit, consider what you will do with more geese - many people breed for the table or sell surplus ganders to the table market, but not everyone is so unsentimental. We have so far (fingers crossed) had little difficulty selling our young ones in autumn to good homes, but the autosexing characteristic of our breed of geese makes it possible to guarantee sex, which is an advantage. Large numbers of crossbred geese of unknown sex may be very difficult to find homes for.
Q. When is a good time to have goslings?
In the spring when new grass is growing. In continental Europe this usually means late March to May. If you are getting eggs well outside these months, eat them; raising goslings when there is no warm weather and nutritious spring grass is difficult and not kind to them. Incubating much too early, so they need to be kept indoors for a long time, causes problems such as them ‘grazing’ one another’s fluff in a frustrated search for grass.
Extreme cold is also dangerous to goslings. If they hatched under a goose, the goose will tuck them under her wing to keep them warm, but they need to come out to graze, and if they fall on their back or get stuck they can get chilled, become immobile and die very quickly (although they can recover from a surprisingly torpid state, so it is worth warming up a gosling you think has died of cold). When the goslings have hatched in an incubator, aim to have them outdoors as much as possible in crow-proof movable pens, while making sure they do not get chilled (the first week is the hardest – after that they become surprisingly resilient! See ‘When should a gosling first go outside’).
Q. Should I let my goose sit on eggs?
We do not recommend letting geese in their first laying year incubate at all (most wild greylags only breed in their third year). They often do not have the fat reserves to survive 30 days of near-starvation. 'Going broody' is an obsessive trance state where the goose barely eats, comes off the nest just once or twice a day to snack, drink, bathe and defecate. It is not just sitting still for a long time.
We feel that incubation is one of the areas of goose care where human intervention and care is most important. It is true that wild geese have been incubating for millions of years, but humans have bred domestic geese to lay far more eggs, starting earlier in the year, than wild geese. Part of the economic rationale for geese has always been that their keepers could eat the first eggs as valuable protein during the 'hungry gap' months of late winter and early spring, with the geese hatching eggs later. It is sensible to keep the geese to seasonal breeding patterns with late-spring goslings, even if they have been selected to lay outside these times.
If you do not want your goose to sit, keep taking the eggs away. She may occasionally go broody on an empty nest, but then push her off and shut her away from the nest – tough love is better than letting her wear herself out for nothing.
If your goose is at least two years old, looks good and fat, and you want goslings, let her build up a clutch once the spring is sufficiently advanced that grass will be available to goslings. You cannot force a goose to go broody, or to stay broody, but most will if circumstances are right.
Bird eggs do not begin to develop until the bird begins to incubate, so eggs lying cold in the nest are in storage. Geese will usually collect a clutch and go broody when they have 4-8 eggs; if you take the eggs away, they will usually continue to lay (a dummy egg may encourage them to continue to use a nest that is being robbed, since geese cannot count very well). A clutch of more than 10 eggs may be too much for a goose to sit on effectively and result in a lower hatch rate; in addition, some of the eggs will be quite old by then and may explode, endangering other eggs.
Goslings hatched by geese are much less tame – but also a lot less work – than goslings that are partially raised by humans. A good goose will hatch better than an incubator, and geese and ganders are usually excellent parents.
Q. Should two female geese share a nest?
Two geese sharing a nest looks sweet but is often a disaster. They can crush eggs and goslings, and often one goose continues to lay into the nest once the other has started to incubate. This causes a strung-out hatch, with the first goslings often squashed to death by unhatched eggs, and the last eggs abandoned in the nest as the geese lead the first surviving goslings away. If two geese are sharing a nest, either do not let them sit or split them up; once the goslings are mobile, the danger is past and the geese can parent together. If you must let them nest together, it is advisable to have an incubator or another broody on standby to whisk away unhatched eggs which may be abandoned while still alive, because they were laid after the first eggs started to be incubated.
Q. How do I store eggs?
Eggs store well in a cool dry place, for either eating or hatching. For hatching, turn them once a day or so to stop them sticking, and do not wash until you are about to set them in the incubator (we then do a vinegar wash).
Q. How do I prepare eggs for the incubator?
Eggs for incubation can be stored for up to three weeks, or even sent in the post in suitable packaging (polystyrene casings sized for goose or turkey eggs). You will also want to turn them daily, forward and back rather than a full rotation, and to keep track of when they were laid. For this purpose, we mark them with pencil with:
1. the day they were laid, and the parentage if known
2. Two arrows pointing forth and back (see photo)
Turn the incubator on a few days before you put the eggs in, to make sure the temperature controls work. We do not wash them, but dip the eggs in cheap vinegar warmed in the incubator, and dry them roughly, immediately before putting them in. This slightly thins the shell and may help in an incubator, which is more sterile than under a goose but where eggs sometimes do not lose enough moisture throughout incubation.
Q. How do I incubate eggs in an incubator?
Incubator models vary, so follow the settings suggested in your incubator manual. Most bird incubators work. We are very happy with ours from www.fieger.ch.
If you have automatic turning (and who doesn't), do another half turn every day. We also "cool" by removing the eggs from the incubator for 20-40 minutes a day (or ‘precisely as much time as it takes to have a shower and get dressed for work’) from day 12 to day 26. Humidity depends a little on your natural conditions. We usually run our incubator at about 60% humidity by putting two small bowls of water in up to day 26, when we put another bowl in and start misting in preparation for hatch. In damp climates such as the UK, people seem to have better success running the incubator as dry as possible for geese, with no water at all. Goose eggs often do not lose enough moisture during incubation, resulting in large "floppy" goslings which take a day or so to get up and running, and high dead-in-shell rates.
Q. What other ways are there to incubate eggs?
A large broody chicken or duck can also hatch goose eggs.
Q. How do I tell if the eggs are developing?
After about 7 days of incubation, you can use a candler - a very bright light - in a dark room to see if they are fertile. You should see a tracery of blood vessels at 7 days, a moving mass up to about 20 days, then the egg should "go dark" except for the air space, as the growing embryo blocks the light. After they go dark, they become more difficult to monitor, though if you set them on a flat surface you may see them wobble as the embryo moves.
Q. The eggs in a nest are not hatching, but the goose keeps sitting on the nest. What should I do?
Record when a goose starts to sit, as accurately as possible. If nothing hatches, you need to intervene as she may starve herself to death without the instinctive prompt of goslings to stop her broodiness.
A goose will usually "sit tight" and forgo her daily outing to bathe, drink and snack once the eggs start to make noises - around day 27 of incubation. If she gets to around day 35 with no sign (it can be hard to tell exactly when a goose started to sit), you should have a look. If there is no obvious sign of life, candle them and set them on a flat surface to see if they move. If you have an incubator, you could move them to there for a week.
If you are sure the eggs are dead, you need to take them away and move the goose off the nest. She will be distraught and may spend a week trying to get back onto it, but it is for the best. She needs to start eating properly and to recover.
Q. Should I let my adult geese look after the goslings on their own?
If a goose hatched the goslings, the parents will do their best to protect them from predators. Crows are very clever, however, and can take goslings up to the age of about 4 weeks (although the most dangerous time is the first week). Other predators may take even bigger goslings. You can help your geese protect their young by stringing fishing line over the enclosure and by making sure there are no places where the goslings can easily be separated from their parents (they can pop through fences and get snapped up by crows while their parents are unable to help).
If the goslings hatched in an incubator, they will not be bonded to the adult geese and so will not run to them when cold or threatened by predators. You will need a movable pen with a lid or netting over the top to get them outdoors (or when you have time, just sit out with them – goslings like to sit on your feet and run around you and are unlikely to run away). A rabbit pen is suitable, or make your own with wire panels. If you put their pen near the adult geese, the adults – especially the ganders – are likely to be interested and bond with the goslings. We make a point of introducing our tame ganders and our new goslings on the first day under supervision, before the goslings have learned to be afraid of large noisy things, and they are usually behaving like a family by the time the goslings are crow-proof at about 4 weeks.
Q. What do I need for raising goslings?
Some people use a specialized ‘brooder’ which produces heat. We find this unnecessary for small numbers of goslings, who should be out on grass most of the day from an early age anyway, and can spend nights in a cardboard box in the house (or in an outhouse under a heatlamp).
Items we use to raise goslings:
Q. What should I feed goslings?
While goslings should have grass, it is helpful to feed them waterfowl crumbs as well to help them become predator-proof faster and achieve an impressive size. We usually feed grower food for three months, then switch to corn or maintenance pellets. There are two main mistakes that people make when feeding goslings.
Firstly, goslings raised on chicken grower crumbs and without adequate grass may get niacin/vitamin b3 deficiency, which causes leg weakness. This needs to be fixed immediately with niacin supplement (a health food shop, supermarket or pharmacy should sell this as either tablets or a nutritional yeast), but best is to avoid it by feeding specific waterfowl crumbs and letting them graze all day. If chicken grower is the only feed available, add a nutritional yeast or other source of niacin.
Secondly, too much protein can cause goslings to develop ‘angel wing’. When they grow too fast, the feathers become heavy before the muscles of the wing can support them, so the wing twists outwards. The muscles then grow deformed, and the bird has a permanently sticking-out wing – unsightly, and a sign of an incompetent or negligent breeder. This is completely fixable when it first appears, so do not panic. As soon as you see the characteristic sticking-out in goslings 4-8 weeks old, take some masking tape (or vet wrap if you have it) and wrap it round the wing and body, supporting the wing so the muscles grow right. You can stop as soon as the wing stays tucked in without the tape (if detected early this is just 2-3 days).
While this is caused by too much protein, do not worry if one or two goslings in a batch have to be taped (it is better than risking stunting their growth by under-feeding!) but if all your goslings are getting it, consider ways to make them get more exercise and eat more grass instead of high protein food.
Q. When should a gosling first go outside?
Goslings hatched under their parents are ready to follow their parents around outside from the day they hatch. Incubator hatched goslings need extra protection against cold, rain and predators, but will also enjoy being outside from their first day. They love to eat grass and clover, even if it will initially seem like a rather even fight between a blade of grass and a gosling. We take them out under supervision and let them follow us around before they are even properly dry, if it is a sunny day.
You can tell whether your goslings are at a comfortable temperature from their behavior. If they are huddling together and all pushing to be in the centre of the pile while making unhappy noises, they are cold. If they are lying apart and their beaks are gaping, they are too hot. If they are lying apart with their legs stretched out, they are on the warm side of comfortable (they use their legs to radiate excess heat); if they are asleep in a pile making happy trills, they are on the cool side of comfortable. If they are active, they are fine. We generally offer them a sheltered spot in an outdoors pen, with a hot water bottle in the first week, and watch their behaviour to know when to bring them in.
We really recommend observing goslings to decide when to leave them out, as keeping them indoors too much is not good for them and not kind, and they develop resistance to cold at an astonishingly early age.
Q. When should a gosling first swim?
Goslings can and like to swim and dive almost from the day they are hatched. Provided they can get warm afterwards and do not get stuck in water, this is a healthy thing for them to do.
Goslings hatched by geese get some oil from their parents’ feathers, and so are waterproof immediately. Goslings hatched in the incubator will not have get any oil from adult geese, and so are less water-resistant and may become soggy. Nonetheless they manage pretty well, and from about three weeks old the down seems to be waterproof even if the outer layer of feathers is not there yet. Watch them for signs that they are getting chilled, and do not leave them out all day in the rain before about two weeks old.
Q. Where do I keep my incubator-hatched goslings at night?
We keep our goslings overnight in a cardboard box in the living room until they are about 3-4 weeks old (they like TV), then out in a goose house (well proofed against rats and other predators) from then on. They should have food and water at night for the first few weeks, but this does become very messy after that so consider only giving them a drink when they are put outside in the morning!
If our goslings are getting on well with the adult geese, we might start sleeping them together earlier. Observation is key though, you need to be sure none of the geese object to the goslings. Usually it is the female adult geese which attack goslings, rather than ganders.
Q. How should I mark goslings to track bloodlines?
If you have several bloodlines in one incubator and want to track who came out of which egg, the most usual way to do this is using temporary plastic rings. At about 3 weeks, we use ‘closed rings’ of diamter 24mm, a European standard system where you order unique-numbered rings through your breed organisation and put them on the goslings so that they grow into them and they never come off. (Gosling feet grow much faster than the rest of them, so a ring which fits over the foot at 3-3.5 weeks will be a comfortable bracelet on an adult). We also use nail polish to mark new-hatched goslings on their toenails. This needs renewing every 1-2 days, but is easy and does not fall off like rings can.
Q. What do I do about leg problems in goslings?
Some goslings have difficulty getting up on their feet when they hatch. Occasionally these are genuine deformities and culling may be the best option, but often it can be completely and easily fixed by helping the muscles strengthen in the right way. We do not think these conditions are necessarily genetic, and they may be related to conditions of incubation (for example slightly too much humidity) or to the size of egg.
‘Splay legs’, where a gosling’s legs spraddle to the sides, should be treated by putting a rubber band round the tops of the legs, and encouraging the gosling to walk on a non-slippery surface (carpet, grass, paving – not tiles or newspaper) at intervals for a few days.
‘Curled feet’ is what it sounds like; the gosling does not have enough control over its feet to spread them out to a proper standing position. You can splint the foot open with cardboard, or simply use a finger to uncurl them and encourage the gosling to put weight on them (an hour of this in the evening while watching television seems to work).
If an older gosling goes off its legs, it may be something more serious. Feel the bird’s beak and feet – are they unusually hot? Is the bird lethargic, are there any signs of eye infection? If any of these are the case, take the bird at once to the vet for a broad spectrum antibiotic like Baytril; we have lost goslings between the ages of 4 and 12 weeks to bacterial infection, probably Streptococcus aureus, which seems to affect the legs and can kill or maim them within hours of becoming obvious.
If the bird is cheerful and eating, but off its legs, it is probably not a bacterial infection. One possibility is niacin deficiency – a supplement won’t hurt – although if they are being fed a suitable diet, this is unlikely. It may simply have fallen over and sprained itself. In this case hopefully it will recover within a few days. Geese often develop mild limps from which they recover quickly with no treatment, from stumbles or bee-stings.
Q. How does one prevent and treat sickness in geese?
Fortunately, well-kept geese do not get sick very often. Prevention is better than cure. There is often little that a vet can do for a sick goose.
The main exception is when the goose has a bacterial infection, and immediate application of a broad spectrum antibiotic like Baytril can make the difference between recovery and rapid death. The symptoms of bacterial infection can vary, but often include red and swollen eyes, hot beak and feet, lethargy (always) and leg weakness.
Geese also get simple eye infections, which might clear up eventually on their own, but can be helped with antibiotic eye drops.
It is standard advice to worm your geese with Flubenvet or Panacur (or ideally alternate these to prevent the worms building up resistance) twice a year, ideally spring and autumn when the grass is short and the sun is out to kill worm eggs lying in the grass. We give our geese a pinch each of Flubenvet every day on bread, as they do not reliably eat anything else, for 7 days. If your pasture has not been previously used for geese and you worm stock on or before arrival, they will probably be fine without treatment for at least a few years and you could ask a vet to do faecal examinations instead (this is better for the insect life in your pasture). If you have other grazing animals, like sheep or cows, swapping them between pastures will also help because birds cannot be infected with mammal worms and vice versa.
It is worth having some kind of poultry multivitamin or mineral supplement on hand (in the UK, a brand called Poultry Spice seems to taste good to geese). Sometimes a bird who is off-colour and slightly lethargic may respond well to supplements, and since such generic symptoms are impossible to treat, it helps the owner to feel useful.
Geese can also get ‘egg-bound’ and get a condition called bumblefoot. A good supply of oystershell will make egg binding less likely. We have no direct experience of either of these conditions, and would seek vetinary advice if we did.
Geese can of course get injured. Most often they trip over something and give themselves a limp, which will heal in a few days or weeks without intervention (although it is worth checking there is not a thorn stuck in their foot). Most scratches and bumps will also heal without intervention, although if something in their area is causing injury, try to change it to make it safer. Also keep the pen free of bits of metal or plastic that they can eat. For severe injuries, a vet may be able to help.