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