The German Geese, the Old Gray Goose and Projects for the SPPA

by
Craig Russell

with permission from
SPPA Bulletin, 2003, 8(2):7-8

Toulouse goose - sometimes confused with the Old Gray Goose
Profits in Poultry, 1889

Since becoming an SPPA officer, I've been planning to do a series of articles on waterfowl in general and geese in particular. Eventually, that will happen, but in the meantime, there are several goose projects we should be working on. Geese were once the traditional Christmas meal and competitive with turkeys for special occasions and large get-togethers anytime. But today, due to concerns about high fat diets, and the decline of the traditional family farm (geese are less well-adapted to factory production than chickens or turkeys), the geese are the least used of our traditional poultry. Commercial production has nearly ceased, and is largely dominated by the Embden. Yet unlike the situation with turkeys, where commercial production has soared far beyond traditional levels leaving many historic varieties flirting with extinction, most recognized breeds of geese have remained relatively popular as show birds and have retained safe population levels. Some populations that were historically among the most important types in traditional American agriculture are in serious decline and need immediate help.

Perhaps the German or Pomeranian group is the best example. This breed seems to have originated in the Pomeran or Pomorze region of eastern Germany between the rivers Oder and Vistula. It spread widely over the rest of Germany and much of eastern Europe. It is the most common breed in Poland as well as Germany and very popular in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Several varieties exist: Gray, White, Gray Saddlebacks and Buff Saddlebacks. In Germany the solid buff version is known as the Celler Goose. It clearly comes from the same background but was developed as a separate strain northeast of Hanover. Historically, the Gray variety was the most common, but in many areas the Saddlebacks predominate today. As little as 35 years ago, these geese were common where ever Germans had settled in North America. Today they are nearly gone. The APA recognizes only the Saddleback varieties. Unfortunately, only a few of these flocks are now genuine.

The Pomeranian group descended from the Eastern Graylag and should have its pink or flesh-colored bill and feet. Despite more than two centuries of history in North America, Pomeranians were not recognized by the APA until 1977. The initial standard was written to reflect the breed's background, a medium-sized goose with APA standard size of 17 lbs. for old ganders and 15 lbs. for old hens are near the upper limit of the breed's typical size. Yet many birds winning today are much larger, and also have orange bills and feet. These changes came about not by selection of Pomeranians but by crossing Buff and Gray Geese with the Embden and selecting for the desired Saddleback Pattern. This has led to serious fights about the proper standard. No matter how you write the standard, geese with orange bills and feet are not historically Pomeranians. By the way, Saddlebacks of this type usually have dual lobed paunches while true Pomeranians and generally most geese descended from Eastern Graylags have a single lobe. Geese of the wrong type probably should be called American Saddlebacks, although Saddleback geese from a Western Graylag background have been long known in Scandinavia. Some of these may have reached North America, but they have little relationship to the false Pomeranians under discussion.

I first became acquainted with the Pomeranian group in the mid-1960s when I used to accompany Slim Folk and Mr. McClintock, two of Dewart's older poultry men, to a livestock auction near my current residence. During our first fall visit, I found several turkey crates of pink-billed and –footed geese unlike anything I had ever seen. (Actually, I had probably driven by lots of them but had was never close enough to tell that they weren't Grays or Embdens or of that background.)

"Look at these," I said. Slim sort of sniffed and said, "German Geese." I could tell he wasn't impressed. "They aren't in the Standard," said McClintock. "They should be," I replied. I was right then and I still am.

As conservationists, we should work to straighten out the misunderstandings with the Standard and obtain recognition for the Gray and White varieties. Most importantly, we need to find and preserve remnant flocks. Keep your eyes open when you are attend swaps, auctions, and shows and or drive by domestic flocks. In recent years, I've seen such birds in Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio and Maryland. Glenn got a small flock from a family of German descent in Iowa not too many years ago. Don't worry too much about the proper pattern. If they have the proper type, we can sort out the rest.

Historically, the Pomeranians were the second largest group of geese in North America. The other large group we need to worry about was the largest until around thirty years ago. This was simply the Gray Goose, the traditional goose of farm and homestead, a large version of the Western Graylag. Through the 1960s, agricultural records recorded it as the most common goose in the U.S. I suspect it had the same status in Canada. This goose is still with us, but now all too often is called the Commercial Toulouse. This name makes it the Jerusalem artichoke of poultry. The Jerusalem artichoke is a wonderful vegetable, but it is a sunflower, not an artichoke and it has absolutely nothing to do with Jerusalem. Calling the Gray Goose a Commercial Toulouse is somewhat worse. It not only isn't a Toulouse, it is the Goose of traditional agriculture, not modern commerce and if you can get by those problems, the name leads to confusion with the real Toulouse, which is a goose of an entirely different type and background. The only thing the two have in common is their color, gray. The Commercial Toulouse name started as a wrong-headed mid-20th century marketing ploy. The Gray, while smaller than the Toulouse, is generally a better layer, easier to finish, not as fatty, matures earlier, and historically was a better parent.

Gray breeds and Gray varieties of breeds are widespread in Europe. The American Gray Goose population certainly has a mixed background. The old English Gray probably predominates and Gray Pomeranians have certainly had some influence as shown by individuals with partially pink bills and the tendency of some flocks to produce both single-lobed and pink-billed and –footed individuals. Lesser influences probably include Grays from Scandinavian and other western European source, perhaps even such French Grays as the Landes and Agricoles and Alsace. In recent years, even the Toulouse influenced some strains. The end result has been a distinctive population similar to but somewhat larger than the English Gray. This approach favored by many old-timers like Henry Miller and Bruce Lentz. The first American Buffs appeared as sports from this population. Some Buff strains were developed from or perfected with the use of Pomeranian stock. Nevertheless, they are pretty obviously two varieties of the same breed.

While the Gray population has slipped drastically in the last 40 years, the semi-commercial strains being called Commercial Toulouse have kept them from being really endangered. But the problem facing us with this breed is preserving strains that retain their historic production values. The Grays have always been noted as layers and some "modern" strains may actually have shown some improvement, however brooding and parenting skills have been seriously degraded in some cases. A number of historic strains routinely became broody twice a year. SPPA members should be looking at long-established farm flocks that reproduce naturally. In the last several years, I've had a number of contacts from people interested in winning standard recognition for the Gray. That is a hopeful sign. What we need next is someone to head up the effort.

Pomeranians and Grays were the most important breeds in North America but some other interesting and genetically important breeds have had an American presence, and now are on the verge of slipping into oblivion. The Blue Goose is a striking light blue color, patterned like a Gray. This goose has never been common but fixed strains have existed. This is arguably the most attractive domestic goose. American populations may be in part descended from the German Steinbacher, a small fighting goose (geese as well as chickens were once bred for combat) and the only established breed that I know of that is routinely this color. Not even Dale Rice and Bruce Lentz were sure of the genetics at work here. Bruce felt that it was a simple recessive dilute of Gray. Dale believed that it might breed like blue in chickens. The sole Blue Goose I owned died before I could breed it. The American Blues I've seen are like the Grays in size and type. In fact, they often originate from Gray flocks. Pomeranians sometimes produce birds of this color. This goose deserves to be preserved because of its unique beauty.

The West of England Goose is one of only three known auto-sexing breeds. The others are the Pilgrim and the Normandy. The Norman or Normandy is probably the ancestor of the West of England. The Pilgrim is probably its descendant. The Normandy may well have been the goose on the Mayflower. Although they may not have been pure, the New England Farm Geese that Oscar Grow gathered up to establish the Pilgrim almost certainly had West of England in their background. At one time, this goose was well established in New England. Eventually, they were mixed with or replaced by later importations. However, over the years pure stock has been reported in Western Pennsylvania, Virginia and of course New England. SPPA member Bernard Gill found a flock in West Virginia some years ago and is working with them. Currently, I know of only one North American flock. Pilgrims have gray hens and white ganders. The West of England and Normandy have blotched or saddleback females and white males. They tend to be somewhat squatter than the Pilgrim. Keep your eyes open.

Remember that Erin Travers said we shouldn't move at a snail's pace with our conservation efforts. Even in 1967, we would have had to hunt a little for the last two varieties, but we could have found them all. Now the clock is ticking. Let's save the goose! Birds showing historic, traditional traits should be secured for organized breeding programs if at all possible. If you know of well-established Gray flocks with well-developed natural reproduction or any of the other varieties, please bring them to the to the attention of the SPPA.


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