We had agreed to look after K’s flock of free-range Bantam chickens. On the face of it, this seemed to be a fairly simple task. All we had to do was feed the 20-or so hens and roosters cracked corn ever so often, and keep a wary eye out during the day for the many hawks that lived around the property. K’s wife had used a slingshot to pop away at hawks that dared to land on trees around the yard, and the presence of K’s old red-tick hound also helped to discourage these efficient predators from swooping down to snatch up the unwary chick.
Well, we didn’t have a sling-shot and K’s hound had gone off to live at the farm in Ocala. We had Echo, Anni’s black lab, to defend the flock. Turned out Echo was basically an indoor dog, more given to relaxing on the cool cement floor of the porch or hanging out in front of the fireplace than in chasing hawks or, luckily for us, chickens. Also, we went off to town each work day, which pretty much left the flock to their own devices.
For the first couple of months, all appeared well. We’d be sitting out on the screened porch, enjoying an early morning coffee, quietly watching as the flock of hens, roosters and chicks would move through the tall lawn grass, muttering chicken nonsense to each other as they rapidly snapped up insects perched on the tall grass-blades. The flock would form a kind of skirmish line, beaks darting left and right as they made their way steadily down the lawn toward the lake. Only when they reached the old concrete boat ramp and the headland beyond it that anchored the dock would they turn around and go their separate ways, dispersing toward the tree line, the large bamboo stand and the wall of greenery at the outer edges of the lawn. Here they spent the day, safe from the marauding hawks, protected by the dense canopy of greenery offered by the massive magnolia tree, the water oaks, hickory trees, pine trees and the odd palm tree, all festooned with old-growth Spanish moss that waved like giant flags from limbs and boughs as the morning easterly breeze came on, building force as it crossed the width of the lake, dispersing the mosquitoes, flies, gnats and who-knows-what that had settled in the lawn overnight.
As the winter dusk drew in, the chickens would find a nest out in the barn to stay warm. Hens would cluck encouragement to their tiny chicks as they’d usher them up the trees whose branches grew near the chimney.
At some point we noticed a couple of the hens were missing. We counted beaks and, sure enough, we were shy two adult hens. When we shared this disturbing news with friends who lived on a farm near Ocala, they recommended that we get a pair of geese.
“Wonderful property guards, geese,” we were told. “They’ll go after anything, they’re fearless and they hang close together and mate for life, so you wanna get at least one male and one female. Raise them by hand when they’re goslings, they’ll imprint on you and make you part of their set. But- they live a long time, like 30 years, so it’s a commitment. And, if you ever need to find a second home for them we’ll take them in, they’ll do fine with our geese.”
Sounded good to us, so we went off to yet another farm to get two baby geese. That began our education in goose-keeping, the first lesson being, geese aren’t easy to “sex”, or determine what gender they are, until they’re pretty much grown. Hmmm. We took the advice of our goose-provider, who found us two lovely tiny, snow-white Embden geese. The goose-woman was “90 percent sure” that one was a male and the other a female, but truly only time would tell.
Of course we named them Hansel and Gretel, and bundled them off to the cabin in a cardboard box.
Off we hied to the library, checking out any book we could find about raising domestic geese. Thankfully, there were tomes available, and we dug into the research, reading out loud to each other interesting bits as we sat on the couch before the fireplace, sharing foot space with Cami-the-Siamese and Echo-the-black-Lab, who insisted on taking up the best spot where the heatilator blew warm air.
Between the books and observation, we became more knowledgeable, and more enamored of our two lovely geese. It didn’t take long for the differences between the two youngsters to become apparent. One was growing up to be a bit larger than the other, with a dark orange beak. The smaller bird had a pink beak and seemed to be far more mellow, perfectly content to sit on a lap.In about 3 months, the geese grew from tiny goslings held in the palm of our hand to the size of large cats, albeit with large wings. We were entranced by their soft mutterings, the way they enjoyed cracked corn with gusto, and their signature flat-footed stomping gait as they would race toward us when we stepped from the house to greet them or bring them a tasty bit of lettuce, a favorite treat.
Before long, we determined that the larger bird was indeed a gander, and the smaller bird a goose. Now we knew which was Hansel, and which was Gretel. A small triumph, and likely more important to us than them.
Concerned that the geese might make their way into the lake, where large gators roamed at will, we set up a kiddie swimming pool, much to the birds’ delight. We’d spy out the windows and laugh at their antics as they frolicked in the pool, splashing in with abandon, frantically swimming about squawking and flapping their wings vigorously, causing small molted feathers to fly every which-way. With such wild activity, they soon learned to take turns, sliding in over the pool edge on their breasts, flapping and splashing about, then clambering out awkwardly, sometimes landing beak-first.
After a few such rounds, they’d stand off a few feet away, spread their ever-growing wing-spans, and flap vigorously three or four times, their heads stretching straight up as first one then the other would let out a loud “Arrrrk!”, which ended on a high note. It looked to us like they were having the time of their lives playing in that pool.
In the depth of that first winter, the pool froze over. We hadn’t really thought about the consequences, assuming the geese would stay out of the pool until things warmed up. However, after an overnight hard freeze, I happened to look out the window and there was Hansel, stomping toward the pool with his usual brisk, flat-footed gait. As I watched, he approached the pool, turned his head so that he could eyeball the surface, then carefully placing one broad webbed foot on the edge of the plastic and spreading his wings to get a bit of lift, he launched himself off the pool edge, landed breast-first on that slippery ice, scooted across the surface, and slid ass-over-teakettle right out and over the other side, landing in an ungainly heap on the frosty dirt.
My hoots of laughter brought Anni to the window lickety-split. While I was choking with laughter as I described to Anni what I’d witnessed, Hansel was prancing around the pool, his wings fully extended, head on high, and squawking like a banshee. Gretel had witnessed the whole thing and kept approaching him with her head level and extended toward him, cooing reassuringly, but he would have none of it! “Skuaaaaawk! Ark! Agggggh!” and other crazed vocalizations accompanied him as he stomped off a few feet, flapped his wings vigorously, and finally tucked them in, wiggling his goose-butt in a most emphatic manner.
“They’ve outgrown that baby pool,” Anni observed dryly. “We’ll make them a better goose pond in the Spring. And the new one sure won’t freeze over!”
Puzzled, I asked what she meant and Anni went on to describe a design she’d obviously been toying with, one that would combine a bit of digging, some cement, and the clever use of the constant flow of 72-degree water from the aquifer that provided an unlimited supply of fresh water to the house.
Fast-forward to the Spring and the unveiling of the new goose pond. A couple of neighbors and friends gathered round, beer cans in hand, as Anni carefully swiveled the PVC pipe that routed the flow of the spring and water cascaded down into the cement pond. The geese were standing by, and soon approached the scene of wildly splashing water as the pond slowly filled.
The crowd-pleasing moment arrived, as the geese unhesitatingly jumped right into the pond and began excitedly swimming around in circles, flapping their wings, dipping their heads, and shaking their goose-butts with abandon. It was a moment to remember, marked by triumphant geese honking and the hoots of the delighted humans.
Video snippet: Anni with our geese in the pond
Video snippet: Geese greet Anni