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Nutmeg the Goose

Living in a rural setting here in Central Texas has made it possible for me to give my children some experiences a suburban upbringing might not afford. One of those experiences has been raising ducks. I was surprised and pleased when my daughters became enthusiastic waterfowl custodians, pouring through books and working hard to keep their mixed flock healthy and safe. 

My girls’ obsessive enthusiasm for waterfowl is well known amongst our friends. So when Helen Laughlin mentioned to a mutual friend, Jim, that she had received a sad Chinese “swan” goose from animal control, he naturally thought of the Jordan sisters. He gave me a call, told me about his friend Helen and her work with wildlife, and I agreed to take the goose. 

Jim didn’t tell me, though, that the goose was blind—I assumed I was taking on a goose ready to be placed with our farm flock. But when Helen arrived with our new adoptee, we knew we had a much compromised goose on our hands. Her feathers were dirty, she didn’t groom herself, her eyes were cloudy, and she was obviously unable to see beyond a sense of light and dark. She ran into things. She had a seizure. She couldn’t be with our other ducks and seemed unable to forage, or even know that the grass beneath her feet was the natural food that geese eat. She seemed depressed and lethargic, standing mutely in one place until we moved her back into her cage.

My daughters Minnie and Ella christened the goose "Nutmeg," and began a rehabilitation program for her. They felt it likely that Nutmeg’s problems were twofold. First, she had likely not received proper nutrition, a common problem with ducks and geese. Some backyard owners who give their children ducklings or goslings for Easter assume crackers and bread are sufficient. More conscientious owners may feed commercial feeds, but these too can cause problems. Commercial chicken starter feeds are often medicated, and antibiotics that are given chickens are toxic to ducks. Furthermore, commercial waterfowl starter feeds are formulated for rapid weight gain and early slaughter. This can cause leg problems when the ducks or geese become too heavy for their developing bones. And these feeds are sometimes nutritionally deficient—some ducks and geese are unable to metabolize niacin efficiently, and develop severe leg deformities and other developmental abnormalities when fed commercial feeds without enough niacin.  Minnie and Ella also suspected Nutmeg hadn’t had a water dish deep enough for her to completely immerse her head—this is important for ducks and geese, who must be able to clear their nostrils and their eyes under water.

The girls immediately began custom mixing Nutmeg’s feed to correct suspected nutritional imbalances. They provided Nutmeg with a deep and heavy water dish she wouldn’t tip over when she stumbled into it. They grated vegetables for her, added vitamins and electrolytes to her water, and gently steered her into and out of her cage. Slowly, Nutmeg’s condition improved. She tentatively nibbled grass, and would follow the rest of our flock, hanging back but clearly aware that she was part of a larger group. She learned where her cage was, learned where her food and water were. She became stronger—she began to groom herself. And miraculously, after some months passed, her eyes became clearer. The cloudiness resolved itself to a pale, tiny speck in each eye. We will never know if Nutmeg’s problems were caused by poor nutrition, poor husbandry, or both, but we are thrilled that working hard to optimize her circumstances affected such a change in her condition.

Nutmeg is now a bold, beautiful Chinese goose, with a loud, insistent voice, and enough confidence to peck at her flock-mates when she thinks they need some correction. Her vision is still imperfect, but she sees well enough to move confidently around the farm. I am so grateful to my friend Jim and to Helen for having given this goose a chance—she makes me smile every day. And because of Nutmeg, I became familiar with All Things Wild, which has enabled me to help more ducks who are injured or orphaned!

by Marcy Buffington