Members of the Mayflower Society trace their genetic heritage nearly 4 centuries to that historic boat’s manifest. Despite its name, the Pilgrim goose stakes no such claim. While myriad species of livestock disembarked at Plymouth Rock in 1620, geese weren’t among them. Back then, wild flocks filled the skies—and colonists’ bellies.
The medium-weight Pilgrim goose breed originated just 80 years ago, on an Iowa farm. Using breeding stock purchased in the 1890s from Vermont—with genetic features probably first selected by Viking explorers 1,000 years ago—poultry enthusiast Oscar Grow introduced the breed in the 1930s. Author of the 1972 Modern Waterfowl Management and Breeding Guide, Grow left the breed’s moniker to his wife, Claribel. She dubbed them Pilgrims, having brought the flock to Missouri on the family’s Depression-era move from their ancestral farm in Iowa.
The American Poultry Association recognized the breed in 1939. While females lay as many as four dozen delicious eggs annually, the breed is kept primarily for meat and as sentinels for duck and chicken flocks. Today, the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy and Slow Food USA’s Ark of Taste prize the Pilgrim’s sweet disposition and his-and-hers plumage, traits unique among domesticated American geese.
Most day-old poultry breeds demand something akin to an expert diaper check if the sexes are to be separated before puberty. “Sexing a baby goose is very difficult,” says Dennis P. Smith, who has raised several heritage goose breeds over the past 50 years. “You need a strong light and a magnifying glass.” And a steady hand—too much pressure on the inverted hatchling during examination can induce life-threatening injuries.
With the Pilgrim, the moment goslings of the breed tap an exit from their snow-white shells, there’s no mistaking geese for ganders. Male goslings sport silvery-yellowish down; females have olive-gray fluff. In adulthood, similarities between the sexes extend only so far as the birds’ bright orange bills and feet. Creamy white feathers adorn the 14-pound, blue-eyed ganders; their smaller, brown-eyed mates fledge in shades of dove gray with white rumps.
For the hobbyist, the breed’s calm disposition trumps the chromosomal quirk that yields the sexes’ disparate plumage. For a professional, autosexing can mean the difference between boom and bust. “You put a lot of feed into extra males, and at no time do they work as much as the females,” says Smith, the founder and CEO of Country Hatchery in Wewoka, Oklahoma. “The female is, by far, the most coveted—people want them for eggs. And if you have too many males around, they’ll just fight.”
Photograph by Shane Bevel
Originally published in Organic Gardening magazine, April/May 2013