Being Mother Hen to Ducks and Geese

A print by Monte Dollack hangs in our unfinished bathroom; after nine years, we still have a tile-less cement floor, still bathe in the bathtub we picked up at the garbage dump for $10. But the Dollack print attests to our desire to have nice things, hints that someday the room will be finished.

In the picture, "Suburban Refuge," eight varieties of ducks paddle around in a similar tub, preen themselves beneath a potted fern, take flight from the tub, float in the commode, hide under it, or stand atop it. A nonchalant mallard stands on a toothpaste tube, the contents spreading on the floor. An unruly wigeon has unrolled several yards of toilet paper. The waterfowl are happy to have such a refuge.

I bought the print for my husband, who hunts ducks and says he likes ducks, although to me, to like and to hunt ducks are incongruous. But I like ducks as well. As a child, raised on Lake Washington in Seattle, when it was still somewhat countrified, I raised a number of wild ducks, ducks separated from their mothers during storms.

My dad and I would scoop them out of the pounding waves with a large fish net and rush them to the basement, where they would live for a time in a shoe box, with me and a light bulb as mother.

Some left us when they were grown, others stayed. But I learned duck language and understood what every peep and squawk meant. They liked it when I wore a red sweater. They loved it when I lifted the dianthus that draped over the rockery, so they could eat the young slugs that hid there.

Now, 40 years later, I am raising two goslings. They were purchased, not rescued. And perhaps for that reason, I feel more responsible, as if I must do whatever it takes to get them to goosehood.

Years ago, I bought a book titled "Ducks and Geese in Your Backyard." It sounded romantic. It told how geese mate for life, how fiercely protective they are of their young, how males and females share equally in parenting duties.

But for nearly four weeks now, our geese have outgrown a series of mesh-covered boxes beside the bed. When they arrived, as one-day-olds, I cleaned the box twice a day; now, being a goose farmer is pretty much an all-day job.

I didn't think spring would be so cold, so windy, so late.

And I've learned that raising a single duck in the basement is not the same as raising two geese beside the bed. They live where they do so that I can protect them from our three dogs and three cats, all of whom have made furtive forays at the cheeping box. On our daily treks to the outside world, the retriever and cow dog have learned that the goslings are part of our family. Our newest dog, a shepherd-black Lab mix, is not yet convinced. He still thinks they would be a tasty meal, as do all three cats.

The goslings arrived with cold feet. They were shaking. Putting them in the box with the light bulb, offering them food and water, did nothing to warm their feet, nothing to stop the cacophony. Taking them to bed with me quieted them. We wrapped ourselves in a woolen blanket; they immediately calmed. After half an hour, they were quiet when again placed in their box.

Those first days they did a lot of cheeping, mostly at night. They seem to be nocturnal, or else their rustlings are more noticeable during the quiet hours of darkness. The gander (at least we think he's a gander) snores loudly when he does sleep. He picks on his mate, pecks for hours at the cardboard, and what he consumes comes out the other end about every three minutes. At 3 a.m. they run out of food. They leap at the top of their box, demanding more.

It's been a sleepless four weeks. I tried putting them in their outdoor pen for part of one of the less-chilly days, but they appeared unhappy afterward, so it was back to the box. They need fresh water five times a day. I have haunted local stores in an endless search for larger and larger boxes.

Their daily swim in our tub has become progressively messier. They dive underwater, splash the Sheetrock walls, clamor to get out. In real life, unlike in the Dollack print, there is a keeper. And I'm it.

They are brave little goslings. They stretch out their long necks and hiss at me if I'm more than a few feet from them, hiss at the retriever when he comes too close, aggressively peck at the Lab's face through the fence. They have yet to learn their task, the reason we bought them. They are to rid the garden of weeds and grasshoppers, and chase the deer who come in the night to eat the young leaves of our fruit trees. Last year, the garden boasted nothing but filigreed leaves and chewed-off stalks, after a swarm of grasshoppers and Olympian deer had had their way with it.

WE don't know if the geese will be suited to the task. They seem to prefer eating the grass of our tiny lawn and haven't been introduced to grasshoppers.

We've named them Henry and Daisy. They fly into frenzies of activity for no apparent reason, flapping their small wings and running around in circles loudly proclaiming their dominance, their joy, their alarm? I'm not yet conversant in goose language, am uncertain what these antics mean. I enjoy watching them, but must admit I would enjoy them much more if they could move to their outdoor home.

"Suburban Refuge" is a nice painting to look at while soaking in the tub, but it's not the kind of art that mirrors reality. In the print, the mess is amusing. If I were to paint such a picture, I'd paint myself in it, scrubbing out the tub, preparing yet another box, brushing the goose-chewed hair from my brow, pensively wishing for good weather.

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