Be Your Own Birder

The Sixth Day of Christmas

Six days in to the festivities, and the bird gifts keep on coming in The 12 Days of Christmas. As the numbers get bigger, so do the birds.

On the sixth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…
…Six geese a-laying.

Which Geese?

There are 30 different wild bird speces called “geese” throughout the world, the most popular of which include the Canada goose, cackling goose, bar-headed goose, snow goose, and spur-winged goose. But which geese are the famed holiday gifts? Given the birds’ ranges, population numbers, winter habitats, and connections to hunting and domestic goose flocks, it is most likely that this gift was meant to reference the greylag goose (Anser anser). These are large, heavy-bodied geese with gray-brown coloration, pink legs, pink-orange bills, and rippled feathering on their necks. They’re widespread in Europe, have been introduced to Australia and New Zealand, and can be found in exotic waterfowl collections worldwide.

Greylag Geese - Photo by ianpreston
Greylag Geese – Photo by ianpreston

Since the geese in question are mean for egg production, however (why else choose geese that are specifically a-laying?), domestic geese must also be considered. There are more than 125 recognized breeds of domestic geese worldwide, and additional hybridization can create even more distinctive and unusual geese. Many of these breeds are domesticated descendants of the greylag goose, and therefore the idea that greylag geese are the original holiday gifts is certainly plausible and consistent.

How Much Are They Laying?

The whole point is that these geese are “a-laying” and thus are another gift of food for the lucky gift recipient in the song. On average, most geese will lay 5-7 eggs per year, though domestic breeds may lay two or three times as many, up to 20 or so eggs in a year.

Cackling Goose Nest - Photo by Lisa Hupp/USFWS
Cackling Goose Nest – Photo by Lisa Hupp/USFWS

This is far less than the massive quantities of eggs laid by three French hens, and so it is unlikely that this holiday gift is intended strictly for eggs. Instead, the young goslings could be hatched and allowed to grow to furnish meat for the table. When mature, one of these geese will weigh 6-7 pounds (many domestic varieties are even heavier), plenty for a tasty meal even for a large family. With six geese laying even a scant 5 eggs per year, that means at least 24 geese to roast, saute, fry, grill, stuff, and otherwise dine on each year, assuming six of the resulting goslings are allowed to mature to lay eggs the following year.

Roast Goose Dinner - Photo by Glen MacLarty
Roast Goose Dinner – Photo by Glen MacLarty

Beyond the Food

Beyond eggs and meat, another possibility is using the gifted birds as a source of feathers. Goose down is incredibly lightweight and warm, useful for all manner of insulation and fillings for clothing, quilts, pillows, mattresses, and upholstered furnishings. Because geese naturally molt each year, with the size of the resulting flock from the original six geese a-laying, the gift recipient could easily use the feathers in many ways even as they enjoy goose eggs and meat.

With so many uses, geese can be a very practical and productive gift, especially for one’s true love when one is trying to demonstrate the ability to provide and prosper. And just halfway through the holiday gifting, these birdy gifts have been prosperous indeed!

Six Domestic Geese - Photo by Tim Green
Six Domestic Geese – Photo by Tim Green

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