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Sacred birds of a feather here long before turkeys

by
23 December 2022

Ian Tattum celebrates a bird traditionally associated with Christmas

Alamy

NONE of the gifts in “The Twelve Days of Christmas” are conspicuous for their immediate utility, and that includes the six geese a-laying. Compared with their wild relatives, domesticated geese are prolific egg-layers — but they don’t start producing eggs until the spring.

The strongest association between geese and Christmas is as the traditional centrepiece of Christmas dinner, although A Christmas Carol has misled many people because Scrooge, as a token of his change of heart, gives the Cratchit family a turkey for Christmas. The point of this was the exceptional generosity involved, as, at the time, this was rich man’s fare. Turkeys became widespread only when an extensive railway system helped to make them affordable and easy to transport. Geese walked to the market.

In The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, first published in 1892 in The Strand Magazine, Conan Doyle gives a less misleading sense of a standard Victorian Christmas. A stolen gemstone is discovered in the crop of a Christmas goose, and Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson search among London’s many goose markets to solve the mystery of its theft.

The poultry markets of Cheapside were long established, and were supplied by domesticated flocks of geese from Lincolnshire and Suffolk. For centuries, flocks of tens of thousands of birds had been herded to the capital for consumption in the autumn and winter. The birds covered the journey at about eight miles per day, and sometimes had their feet tarred to protect them on the road. These geese were greylags, and they had first been domesticated by the ancient Egyptians, or possibly the Greeks.

Geese do not always get a good press. These days, they are hardly appreciated as food, and often deemed to be pests which pollute public lakes and parks. They are also associated with stupidity and aggression.

Where I live in south London, though, they are valued by many as a reminder of the wild in the city. Canada geese roost in great numbers around the Thames Basin, and commute along various waterways to open stretches of water. Consequently, they follow the River Wandle, which provides the boundary for our parish before turning west to arrive at Wimbledon Park lake, engineered by Capability Brown. Honking geese flying above us daily are as much a part of the local soundscape as rumbling buses.

And geese are remarkable birds. When George MacLeod, the founder of the Iona Community, replaced the dove with a wild goose as a symbol for the Holy Spirit, he did so because of the bird’s unpredictability, range, and mystery — in contrast to the all too familiar, if underappreciated, pigeon.

 

GEESE have been domesticated twice. There is evidence from China that this first happened about 7000 years ago, with swan geese. Evidence for when and where it happened to greylags is uncertain, but a date of about 1000 BC looks likely. What we do know is that the greylag goose was, from earliest times, considered to be sacred, and not just for the table.

For the Egyptians, the goose was a symbol of Ra, sun god and king of the deities; and archaeologists have unearthed many more mummies of geese than of humans. And the famous incident in 391 BC, when a flock of geese warned the Roman population of an invasion by the Gauls, happened not because they were on guard duty, but because the Capitoline Hill was where the sacred geese were kept.

Domesticated greylag geese have also provided quills for writing, and flights for arrows, but the many wild varieties of geese have fascinating characteristics and lives which are hardly known.

In 1678, John Ray’s scholarly collaborator Francis Willughby first gave the name “Canada” geese to the specimens that had recently been introduced to St James’s Park, but there are six subspecies of the bird, including one that is so massive — bulkier than all the others, and with a six-foot wingspan — that it is rightly called the Giant Canada Goose; there are scientists dedicated to its preservation.

Unlike the introduced specimens in Britain, wild Canada geese spend their summers in the Arctic Circle, and their winters as far south as Mexico. For birdwatchers and ornithologists, goose migrations are one of the wonders of the natural world.

“Barnacle” geese are so named because of a clerical error, when the 12th-century scholar Giraldus Cambrensis gave his “eyewitness” account of watching the birds hanging like barnacles from timbers, and appearing to be generated from wood. While this might not have been very good science, it did provide a pretext for Irish bishops to allow the geese to be eaten during periods of fasting, since the birds were not “born of flesh”.

The mystery of their origin, however, had to wait until the end of the 16th century, when a Dutch explorer discovered them breeding in Spitzbergen. Almost the entire population of 27,000 birds from Svalbard arrives in the Solway Firth every autumn. They would have been a familiar sight to St Ninian, at nearby Whithorn.

 

SIR PETER SCOTT was one of the great conservationists who inspired a love of wildfowl through his paintings, and his work setting up the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, but his life also provided the germ of the story which became Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose.

In October 1936, Sir Peter was living in Lincolnshire, when a wild pink-footed goose arrived from its summer home (probably in the north of Greenland) and joined his wildfowl collection. It lingered all winter, and, unexpectedly, returned the following year. Gallico turned the goose into a snow goose, and wrote a parable in which the goose becomes an angelic agent of healing.

The “Egyptian” goose is not quite an actual goose, being more closely related to the shelduck, but midwinter really is its time. It was introduced to Britain in the same century as the Canada goose, although from Cape Town rather than Egypt. Egypt was historically the north of its range, so it might be better thought of as an African goose; that would help to explain its noisy calls, which evolved from having to compete with elephants and hippos.

About now, they will be getting boisterous as they begin to pair up, ready for mating; by next month, they will be forcefully defending their nest sites against anything threatening — even drones — and they will be a-laying their first eggs, in trees, shortly after that.
 

The Revd Ian Tattum is Vicar of St Barnabas’s, Southfields,in the diocese of Southwark.

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