Gray Geese

by
Craig Russell

with permission from
SPPA Bulletin, 2004, 9(2):14

The American Gray goose is simply a larger version of the Western Gray. While it has never had an official standard it shows the general conformation of the American Buff goose, which essentially sprang from it. In fact this breed is far more uniform than many more recently developed breeds. Some American Buff strains were perfected with the use of Buff Pomeranian blood and the Pomeranians may have been the original source of the Buff gene. The Pomeranian was certainly one of the influences that differentiated the American Gray from the English Gray, which was its primary ancestor.

Years ago I wrote an article promoting the recognition of the Gray goose. As far as reader reaction, it was one of the most popular things I ever penned. Calls, letters and contacts at shows followed, all positive. (This was before the APA recognized any of the Pomeranian group. A number of correspondents wanted to start a similar movement for Pomeranians as well). A lot of people liked the idea, but everyone, including me, waited for someone else to do it. Reactions included suggestions. One caller pointed out that some Grays have orange bills and pink legs, like Western Graylags, and others have both orange bills and legs, like many western domestics. The suggestion was that the standard for the Gray should match that of the American Buff. This made sense, until I mentioned the idea to Bruce Lentz, who explained things. Different varieties are not required to match in leg color. Bruce felt that a recent derivative like the Buff goose should not be allowed to set the standard for the original historic type. He also believed that the orange-legged individuals were suspect for purity and largely a recent (20th century) development.

It does make sense that a breed that is simply a large domestic Western Graylag should match the Western Graylag in color. The American Gray is obviously very closely related to a number of European landraces. Historically gray has been the predominate color of domestic geese. Despite some very old white strains and types, only in recent years have white geese been at all competitive in numbers. In North America gray geese dominated the scene through the 1960s. Those gray geese included Toulouse, Gray Pomeranian and common or American Gray. Even by themselves the American Gray were the most common goose in North America and had been since colonial days, even before the Toulouse was widely known by that name or had reached our shores. The Toulouse reached North America in the 1850s and the Embden arrived in the 1820s.

The American Gray is predominately descended from the English Gray (in its early or original form) but with at least some other largely similar influences. The American Gray goose is the kind that Oscar Grow was talking about on pages 90 and 91 of Modern Waterfowl Management. "Throughout older goose-raising areas there are still to be found numerous local breeds that retain some following, though less widely kept, because of the inroads of improved varieties. Many are scarcely known outside their immediate environs but are retained more as a matter of association than for economic excellence, although their economic virtues are not lacking." Actually, "improved" often means larger, not always an economic virtue. Mr. Grow, who was the nations's foremost Toulouse breeder for many years, only mentions Grays so far as is needed to distinguish them from Toulouse. He promoted breeds like the Brecon Buff and Pomeranian in North America that are similar to our Grays in size and production qualities. He also promoted the smaller Roman geese.

On page 107 of his book Mr. Grow complains, "so many gray-plumaged geese . . . have been accepted as true Toulouse. This confusion has been aggravated through the devious advertising of hucksters who designate their gray geese as 'farm type Toulouse, business Toulouse and utility Toulouse'." He is right, there can't be but one true type for a breed. While Grays are not Toulouse and have an entirely different type and background, they were certainly the farm type, business type and utility goose in this country. In areas of heavy German settlement they were replaced by Pomeranians but were never seriously threatened as the nation's working goose until after 1970 when geese were no longer important in U.S. agriculture. The traditional family farm was rapidly disappearing and there was a strong commercial bias for white poultry.

Mr. Grow points out that other than the Chinese the Toulouse is considered the best layer of the standard breeds and brags that for more than 50 years his Toulouse averaged more than 60 eggs per season and maintained a hatchability rate of more than 54 percent (actually a very good fertility rate for Toulouse). He fails to mention the non-standard Grays often match or exceed the production figure and generally have far higher fertility rates, in excess of 90 percent. As a promoter of Toulouse, Mr. Grow's failure to dwell on the Gray is perhaps understandable. The fact that his Pilgrims, touted as a practical fowl of an ideal size, is in reality an American Gray with an auto-sexing gene, both further explains and makes his failure to cover the Gray in detail hard to understand.

Modern Waterfowl Management is hardly the first book to fail to give much notice of the Gray goose. Harry Lamon and Rob Slocum in Ducks and Geese (1922) refer to the geese kept on most farms as "of no definite breed or variety." They suggest that these geese "have probably arisen as the result of the crossing of the standard breeds." Bruce Lentz felt that he knew better. He saw this as the writers' attempt to help their friends in the poultry industry. Dale Rice, who I believe as a young man talked with Mr. Lamon, said that Lamon was a genetic expert and skilled breeder but knew very little about poultry history. Although John Norris was talking mostly about chickens at the time, he observed that people think poultry writers are experts but all too often they are just writers. It certainly makes sense that a breed that has been well established for nearly four hundred years has in fact been the dominant breed for most of that period should be recognized.

Though they were never as common as the Gray, and only in the late twentieth century did they become anything like common, there have been American White geese also. The Whites are confused with the Embden much as Grays are confused with Toulouse. The type is not as distinct in this case. The main difference is in size. The White goose shows the type of the Gray and is proportionally shorter bodied than the Embden.


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