If you want a good guard dog, get a goose," an old hermit told me once. He lived on an island with a lot of sheep, and his goose was ferocious, all right. Climbing up the hill to the man's one-room shack, I kept my eyes on the goose and my arm extended, finger pointed at its beak. If I'd turned my back on the goose for an instant, I'd have gotten it in the neck, for sure. So two years ago, when son Patrick and his wife, Pat, bought a pair of geese, I foresaw trouble.
"Why do you want geese, anyway?" I asked Patrick. "Of course, a nice, fat goose for Christmas is not a bad idea."
"Just to have around," he said. "We're not planning to eat them." Patrick's black Lab, Rafiki ("friend" in Swahili) was the first to experience the ferociousness of geese. Accustomed to being the boss of the farmyard, as well as the alarm bell for deer, raccoons, and other wild creatures, he assumed he could bring the geese into line. He charged them, in his usual way - barking and with his tail up.
But the geese held their ground. Confused, Rafiki declared victory, turned his back and trotted off. Instantly, the male goose attacked, pecking him viciously at the base of the tail. Rafiki raced off, yelping, tail between his legs, having just met and been mastered by Goose, the alpha guard dog.
Within a month, the mother goose was sitting on a clutch of eight eggs; and by midsummer Rafiki was slinking around, a shadow of his former self, as the geese took over the farm. The goslings, of course, were adorable - like so many Madelines, following behind their parent/teacher in a pleasing, perfect line. When they strutted down the country road, cars stopped and cameras emerged. When they went for their afternoon swim in the pond, even I forgot what they would become.
Geese are quite wonderful in their way, I have to admit. When approached, the head goose stares at you as if you were something to eat - wings spread, serpen-
tine neck outstretched, nostrils distended, beak cocked. He's the warrior spirit epitomized - courage in the face of superior force, unflagging attention to duty, semper fidelis. The bird world's unflappable marine.
Two months later, the eight goslings had developed into five fierce males and three only-somewhat-less-intimidating females. While one could admire a single warrior goose, facing a squad of them was suicidal.
Even Patrick began to show signs of strain.
"Watch out where you walk," Pat warned us one day when we drove up. Easier said than done. If you kept your eyes on the ground, you had to turn them away from the geese; and if you kept your eyes on the geese....
A few weeks later, the flock was down to three.
"What happened to them?" I said, thinking that perhaps the geese had finally been commandeered for the table.
"Sold them to a chicken farm."
"Why would they want geese?"
"They keep the foxes and raccoons away from the chickens," Patrick said. Range chickens, as they are called, have a way of leaning up against the fence when they sleep at night, making them an easy mark for marauders. But not if there's a goose around. One honk and the enemy skulks back into the night. Often, the chickens do not even wake up.
"Guard geese," I thought. "For feebler members of the feathered world." Perfect. Every creature has a job. Just a matter of finding out what it is.
"And what about these?" I said.
"Oh, it's good to have few around."
But the following spring the mother goose was sitting on another clutch of eggs.
"So, are you going to sell some more to the chicken farm?" I said.
"He'll take a few," Patrick said.
"And the rest?"
"We may raise some chickens ourselves. And then there's Rufus. He's our neighbor. He wants a couple, he said. To keep male dogs away from his breeders." We looked over at Rafiki. He looked up at us - and thumped his tail.