Michael Quet­ting

The or­nithol­o­gist re­calls the chal­lenges and joys of rais­ing a clutch of grey­lag geese.

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - Wild At Home -

So, why raise a clutch of geese?

I was work­ing on a long-term project at the Max Planck In­sti­tute for Or­nithol­ogy to re­search whether geese could be trained to carry tiny data-log­gers. The aim was that they would col­lect real-time me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal data and in­for­ma­tion on the flight me­chan­ics of birds. To en­sure we could fit and re­move the de­vices eas­ily, the birds had to be raised – and taught to fly – by a hu­man. Be­cause I can fly a mi­cro­light, I was cho­sen as ‘Papa Goose’.

How did you get the birds to im­print?

I read to the in­cu­bat­ing eggs for a cou­ple of hours a day so they knew my voice, and made sure I was the first thing the hatch­lings saw. I held them and put them un­der my jumper to give them my warmth and smell. If the birds were to even­tu­ally fol­low me in my mi­cro­light, it was cru­cial that they ac­cepted me as their leader.

How in­tense were the early days?

Very. It re­minded me of when my own chil­dren were born. The birds needed con­stant care and re­as­sur­ance, so I lived in a trailer be­side their aviary for the du­ra­tion of the project. Goslings make a dis­tinct sound when they’re tired, which sounds like some­one gen­tly blow­ing a whis­tle. When hun­gry, they peck at your toes.

How did you get the goslings used to your mi­cro­light?

I’d played the sound of the pro­pel­ler into the in­cu­ba­tor, so they weren’t fazed by the noise. We took daily walks with it – I’d taxi the craft into a field and the birds would fol­low. Later, we moved to an air­field and they would fol­low me along the run­way.

How did your first flight feel?

Amaz­ing. The birds flew be­side me so ef­fort­lessly. Some­times it was as if they felt sorry for me, in my car­bon ma­chine.

Did any of the geese go AWOL?

In­deed. And it was ex­haust­ing, be­cause I had to spend ages search­ing for them. I’d usu­ally find them sit­ting in a corn­field.

Were the geese dif­fer­ent?

Yes. I had no idea that their per­son­al­i­ties would be so dis­tinc­tive. Paul was obe­di­ent and car­ing; Cal­imero was very pro­tec­tive. Freddy was the only one who un­masked me as a fraud. He didn’t want to fly with me.

Did the geese go back to the wild?

Yes, that was al­ways the plan. I had imag­ined a mov­ing scene in which I solemnly re­leased them. But, as I dis­cov­ered, na­ture doesn’t much care for solemn mo­ments. And nei­ther do geese.

Michael fly­ing in for­ma­tion with ‘his’ geese.

£16.99, Grey­stone Books Papa Goose: One Year, Seven Goslings, and the Flight of my Life

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