1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Goose

GOOSE (a common Teut. word, O. Eng. gós, pl. gés, Ger. Gans, O. Norse gás, from Aryan root, ghans, whence Sans. haṇsá, Lat. anser (for hanser), Gr. χήν, &c.), the general English name for a considerable number of birds, belonging to the family Anatidae of modern ornithologists, which are mostly larger than ducks and less than swans. Technically the word goose is reserved for the female, the male being called gander (A.-S. gandra).

The most important species of goose, and the type of the genus Anser, is undoubtedly that which is the origin of the well-known domestic race (see Poultry), the Anser ferus or A. cinereus of most naturalists, commonly called in English the grey or grey lag[1] goose, a bird of exceedingly wide range in the Old World, apparently breeding where suitable localities are to be found in most European countries from Lapland to Spain and Bulgaria. Eastwards it extends to China, but does not seem to be known in Japan. It is the only species indigenous to the British Islands, and in former days bred abundantly in the English Fen-country, where the young were caught in large numbers and kept in a more or less reclaimed condition with the vast flocks of tame-bred geese that at one time formed so valuable a property to the dwellers in and around the Fens. It is impossible to determine when the wild grey lag goose ceased from breeding in England, but it certainly did so towards the end of the 18th century, for Daniell mentions (Rural Sports, iii. 242) his having obtained two broods in one season. In Scotland this goose continues to breed sparingly in several parts of the Highlands and in certain of the Hebrides, the nests being generally placed in long heather, and the eggs seldom exceeding five or six in number. It is most likely the birds reared here that are from time to time obtained in England, for at the present day the grey lag goose, though once so numerous, is, and for many years has been, the rarest species of those that habitually resort to the British Islands. The domestication of this species, as Darwin remarks (Animals and Plants under Domestication, i. 287), is of very ancient date, and yet scarcely any other animal that has been tamed for so long a period, and bred so largely in captivity, has varied so little. It has increased greatly in size and fecundity, but almost the only change in plumage is that tame geese commonly lose the browner and darker tints of the wild bird, and are more or less marked with white—being often indeed wholly of that colour.[2] The most generally recognized breeds of domestic geese are those to which the distinctive names of Emden and Toulouse are applied; but a singular breed, said to have come from Sevastopol, was introduced into western Europe about the year 1856. In this the upper plumage is elongated, curled and spirally twisted, having their shaft transparent, and so thin that it often splits into fine filaments, which, remaining free for an inch or more, often coalesce again;[3] while the quills are aborted, so that the birds cannot fly.

The other British species of typical geese are the bean-goose (A. segetum), the pink-footed (A. brachyrhynchus) and the white-fronted (A. albifrons). On the continent of Europe, but not yet recognized as occurring in Britain, is a small form of the last (A. erythropus) which is known to breed in Lapland. All these, for the sake of discrimination, may be divided into two groups—(1) those having the “nail” at the tip of the bill white, or of a very pale flesh colour, and (2) those in which this “nail” is black. To the former belong the grey lag goose, as well as A. albifrons and A. erythropus, and to the latter the other two. A. albifrons and A. erythropus, which differ little but in size,—the last being not much bigger than a mallard (Anas boschas),—may be readily distinguished from the grey lag goose by their bright orange legs and their mouse-coloured upper wing-coverts, to say nothing of their very conspicuous white face and the broad black bars which cross the belly, though the last two characters are occasionally observable to some extent in the grey lag goose, which has the bill and legs flesh-coloured, and the upper wing-coverts of a bluish-grey. Of the second group, with the black “nail,” A. segetum has the bill long, black at the base and orange in the middle; the feet are also orange, and the upper wing-coverts mouse-coloured, as in A. albifrons and A. erythropus, while A. brachyrhynchus has the bill short, bright pink in the middle, and the feet also pink, the upper wing-coverts being nearly of the same bluish-grey as in the grey lag goose. Eastern Asia possesses in A. grandis a third species of this group, which chiefly differs from A. segetum in its larger size. In North America there is only one species of typical goose, and that belongs to the white-“nailed” group. It very nearly resembles A. albifrons, but is larger, and has been described as distinct under the name of A. gambeli. Central Asia and India possess in the bar-headed goose (A. indicus) a bird easily distinguished from any of the foregoing by the character implied by its English name; but it is certainly somewhat abnormal, and, indeed, under the name of Eulabia, has been separated from the genus Anser, which has no other member indigenous to the Indian Region, nor any at all to the Ethiopian, Australian or Neotropical Regions.

America possesses by far the greatest wealth of Anserine forms. Beside others, presently to be mentioned, its northern portions are the home of all the species of snow-geese belonging to the genus Chen. The first of these is C. hyperboreus, the snow-goose proper, a bird of large size, and when adult of a pure white, except the primaries, which are black. This has long been deemed a visitor to the Old World, and sometimes in considerable numbers, but the later discovery of a smaller form, C. albatus, scarcely differing except in size, throws some doubt on the older records, especially since examples which have been obtained in the British Islands undoubtedly belong to this lesser bird, and it would be satisfactory to have the occurrence in the Old World of the true C. hyperboreus placed on a surer footing. So nearly allied to the species last named as to have been often confounded with it, is the blue-winged goose, C. coerulescens, which is said never to attain a snowy plumage. Then we have a very small species, long ago described as distinct by Samuel Hearne, the Arctic traveller, but until 1861 discredited by ornithologists. Its distinctness has now been fully recognized, and it has received, somewhat unjustly, the name of C. rossi. Its face is adorned with numerous papillae, whence it has been removed by Elliot to a separate genus, Exanthemops, and for the same reason it has long been known to the European residents in the fur countries as the “horned wavey”—the last word being a rendering of a native name, Wawa, which signifies goose. Finally, there appears to belong to this section, though it has been frequently referred to another (Chloephaga), and has also been made the type of a distinct genus (Philacte), the beautiful emperor goose, P. canagica, which is almost peculiar to the Aleutian Islands, though straying to the continent in winter, and may be recognized by the white edging of its remiges.

The southern portions of the New World are inhabited by about half a dozen species of geese not nearly akin to the foregoing, and separated as the genus Chloephaga. The most noticeable of them are the rock or kelp goose, C. antarctica, and the upland goose, C. magellanica. In both of these the sexes are totally unlike in colour, but in others a greater similarity obtains.[4] Formerly erroneously associated with the birds of this group comes one which belongs to the northern hemisphere, and is common to the Old World as well as the New. It contains the geese which have received the common names of bernacles or brents,[5] and the scientific appellations of Bernicla and Branta—for the use of either of which much may be said by nomenclaturists. All the species of this section are distinguished by their general dark sooty colour, relieved in some by white of greater or less purity, and by way of distinction from the members of the genus Anser, which are known as grey geese, are frequently called by fowlers black geese. Of these, the best known both in Europe and North America is the brent-goose—the Anas bernicla of Linnaeus, and the B. torquata of many modern writers—a truly marine bird, seldom (in Europe at least) quitting salt-water, and coming southwards in vast flocks towards autumn, frequenting bays and estuaries on the British coasts, where it lives chiefly on sea-grass (Zostera maritima). It is known to breed in Spitsbergen and in Greenland. A form which is by some ornithologists deemed a good species, and called by them B. nigricans, occurs chiefly on the Pacific coast of North America. In it the black of the neck, which in the common brent terminates just above the breast, extends over most of the lower parts. The true bernacle-goose,[6] the B. leucopsis of most authors, is but a casual visitor to North America, but is said to breed in Iceland, and occasionally in Norway. Its usual incunabula, however, still form one of the puzzles of the ornithologist, and the difficulty is not lessened by the fact that it will breed freely in semi-captivity, while the brent-goose will not. From the latter the bernacle-goose is easily distinguished by its larger size and white cheeks. Hutchins’s goose (B. Hutchinsi) seems to be its true representative in the New World. In this the face is dark, but a white crescentic or triangular patch extends from the throat on either side upwards behind the eye. Almost exactly similar in coloration to the last, but greatly superior in size, and possessing 18 rectrices, while all the foregoing have but 16, is the common wild goose of America, B. canadensis, which, for more than two centuries has been introduced into Europe, where it propagates so freely that it has been included by nearly all the ornithologists of this quarter of the globe as a member of its fauna. An allied form, by some deemed a species, is B. leucopareia, which ranges over the western part of North America, and, though having 18 rectrices, is distinguished by a white collar round the lower part of the neck. The most diverse species of this group of geese are the beautiful B. ruficollis, a native of north-eastern Asia, which occasionally strays to western Europe, and has been obtained more than once in Britain, and that which is peculiar to the Hawaian archipelago, B. sandvicensis.

The largest living goose is that called the Chinese, Guinea or swan-goose, Cygnopsis cygnoides, and this is the stock whence the domestic geese of several eastern countries have sprung. It may often be seen in English parks, and it is found to cross readily with the common tame goose, the offspring being fertile, and Blyth has said that these crosses are very abundant in India. The true home of the species is in eastern Siberia or Mongolia. It is distinguished by its long smooth neck, marked dorsally by a chocolate streak. The reclaimed form is usually distinguished by the knob at the base of the bill, but the evidence of many observers shows that this is not found in the wild race. Of this bird there is a perfectly white breed.

We have next to mention a very curious form, Cereopsis novae-hollandiae, which is peculiar to Australia, and is a more terrestrial type of goose than any other now existing. Its short, decurved bill and green cere give it a very peculiar expression, and its almost uniform grey plumage, bearing rounded black spots, is also remarkable. It bears captivity well, breeding in confinement, but is now seldom seen. It appears to have been formerly very abundant in many parts of Australia, from which it has of late been exterminated. Some of its peculiarities seem to have been still more exaggerated in a bird that is wholly extinct, the Cnemiornis calcitrans of New Zealand, the remains of which were described in full by Sir R. Owen in 1873 (Trans. Zool. Society, ix. 253). Among the first portions of this singular bird that were found were the tibiae, presenting an extraordinary development of the patella, which, united with the shank-bone, gave rise to the generic name applied. For some time the affinity of the owner of this wonderful structure was in doubt, but all hesitation was dispelled by the discovery of a nearly perfect skeleton, now in the British Museum, which proved the bird to be a goose, of great size, and unable, from the shortness of its wings, to fly. In correlation with this loss of power may also be noted the dwindling of the keel of the sternum. Generally, however, its osteological characters point to an affinity to Cereopsis, as was noticed by Dr Hector (Trans. New Zeal. Institute, vi. 76-84), who first determined its Anserine character.

Birds of the genera Chenalopex (the Egyptian and Orinoco geese), Plectropterus, Sarcidiornis, Chlamydochen and some others, are commonly called geese. It seems uncertain whether they should be grouped with the Anserinae. The males of all, like those of the above-mentioned genus Chloëphaga, appear to have that curious enlargement at the junction of the bronchial tubes and the trachea which is so characteristic of the ducks or Anatinae. (A. N.) 

  1. The meaning and derivation of this word lag had long been a puzzle until Skeat suggested (Ibis, 1870, p. 301) that it signified late, last, or slow, as in laggard, a loiterer, lagman, the last man, lagteeth, the posterior molar or “wisdom” teeth (as the last to appear), and lagclock, a clock that is behind time. Thus the grey lag goose is the grey goose which in England when the name was given was not migratory but lagged behind the other wild species at the season when they betook themselves to their northern breeding-quarters. In connexion with this word, however, must be noticed the curious fact mentioned by Rowley (Orn. Miscell., iii. 213), that the flocks of tame geese in Lincolnshire are urged on by their drivers with the cry of “lag’em, lag’em.”
  2. From the times of the Romans white geese have been held in great estimation, and hence, doubtless, they have been preferred as breeding stock, but the practice of plucking geese alive, continued for so many centuries, has not improbably also helped to perpetuate this variation, for it is well known to many bird-keepers that a white feather is often produced in place of one of the natural colour that has been pulled out.
  3. In some English counties, especially Norfolk and Lincoln, it was no uncommon thing formerly for a man to keep a stock of a thousand geese, each of which might be reckoned to rear on an average seven goslings. The flocks were regularly taken to pasture and water, just as sheep are, and the man who tended them was called the gooseherd, corrupted into gozzerd. The birds were plucked five times in the year, and in autumn the flocks were driven to London or other large markets. They travelled at the rate of about a mile an hour, and would get over nearly 10 m. in the day. For further particulars the reader may be referred to Pennant’s British Zoology; Montagu’s Ornithological Dictionary; Latham’s General History of Birds; and Rowley’s Ornithological Miscellany (iii. 206-215), where some account also may be found of the goose-fatting at Strassburg.
  4. See Sclater and Salvin, Proc. Zool. Society (1876), pp. 361-369.
  5. The etymology of these two words is exceedingly obscure. The ordinary spelling bernicle seems to be wrong, if we may judge from the analogy of the French Bernache. In both words the e should be sounded as a.
  6. The old fable, perhaps still believed by the uneducated in some parts of the world, was that bernacle-geese were produced from the barnacles (Lepadidae) that grow on timber exposed to salt-water.