Monday Bird of the Week No.41 – Greylag Goose

Today we explore another big bird that frequently finds itself in conflict with humans. This time a native, the Greylag Goose.

Greylags have all the problems last week’s Bird of the Week brought, but unlike the Canada they are native to Europe. The interesting thing is that, until the last hundred years or so, they were on the decline. But those oh-so-appealing public parks have given them a new lease of life and new feral habitats to explore.

Relaxed geese

It’s remarkable just how much they will explore too. In York I have seen them in car parks well away from any water, on sports fields, and in spring they have a delightful habit of wandering down the roads with a small army of goslings in tow, holding up the traffic.

The sad thing is that this bird with so many negative connotations in modern Britain was once a bird of nobility, even deification. Geese have been symbols of fertility worshipped by the Sumerians, the Egyptians and more.

In the UK we have the nursery rhyme ‘Goosey Goosey Gander’. The meaning of this is debated, with some thinking it relates to the persecution of Catholic priests. But the lyrics that back this up don’t appear in the earliest recorded versions, and a more convincing argument can be made that with references to up and down stairs and ‘in my lady’s chamber’ that it is making a rather saucy suggestion about what’s going on between servants and the lady of the house… in many ways this is just a logical continuation of the old fertility myths.

Always watching

Not all these associations are entertaining. ‘To goose’ someone means you pinch them on the bottom. And, while affectionate in tone, ‘silly goose’ is a frame of reference for someone not so bright.

Greylag Geese have been of scientific value too. A 2011 study looked at the way their heart rates responded to different situations of possible stress. Despite predators, storms, and many other possible traumas the thing that really made their heart race was social conflict. If their mate, or close allies, got caught up in any kind of conflict that stressed them more than anything. A possible conclusion from this is that they empathise with the partner, but it’s too soon to say for certain.

Their historical scientific value is high too. It was Greylags Konrad Lorenz worked with in demonstrating the principle of imprinting. This is the famous response where some birds automatically associate to whatever they first see when they hatch. Generally this is beneficial as it means a goose is born knowing it’s a goose. But as Lorenz showed, substitute a wellington boot and confusion ensues! These studies had a profound impact on understanding ethology, animal behaviour, and in 1973 Lorenz won the Nobel prize as a result, shared with Karl von Frisch and Nikolaas Tinbergen.

The good thing about having the Canada and Greylag Geese on consecutive weeks means I can end by pointing out the two will hybridise, as I have recorded here before. This pair have produced young in 2015 and 2016, and given their general loyalty I would imagine 2017 to be no different.

Greylag Goose

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I welcome thoughts, comments and questions, so please feel free to share anything at all. Thanks, David

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