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Cotton patch geese the search is on

Tom T. Walker is looking for a breed of geese he hasn't seen since the 1950s. He thinks there may be a few left in rural Arkansas.

Walker, an Arkansas native, is a member of the Society for the Preservation of Poultry Antiquities, a national organization.

“We zero in on poultry that have been a part of the American way of life in the past but are becoming extinct. I'm working with a breed of turkeys we thought were extinct. But we found several, and now we're trying to increase their numbers.”

He hopes to do the same with what were commonly called “cotton patch geese” when he was growing up. Walker, born in 1927 in Hempstead County, Ark., recalls the small, gentle geese that farmers put in cotton fields to eat crabgrass and other weeds. They wouldn't bother cotton.

He appreciated them at the time because they saved him a lot of work with a hoe.

“We didn't have any chemicals back then. The geese would clean a cotton field completely. It was primarily grass we had to worry about in cotton back then.”

Walker, who taught in colleges and universities in Arkansas and Texas, never forgot the geese.

“I used to see them between Hermitage and Moro Bay and in Union County as late as the early 1950s. There are many places in Arkansas where they could be, but I think they could still be in that area. It has become less populated, so there might be little flocks of the birds around barnyards. People would probably just call them geese.”

Walker said the geese are not native to this country, but they rapidly became necessary to early America.

“They were brought over by the English in the 1600s. This was the bird of early America. People picked the feathers and down off live geese to make pillows, mattresses and comforters. The geese required no special food other than grass and no shelter, and they suffered from no known poultry disease. They also provided eggs, meat and grease. This became the all-American bird.”

The geese helped some Americans survive the Depression, he said.

Becky McPeake, wildlife specialist for the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service, isn't familiar with the breed of geese Walker is seeking, but she thinks it could still exist.

“In wildlife work, we occasionally find a species or breed that we thought was extinct or no longer in Arkansas, but then it turns up.”

She was concerned that the cotton patch goose may no longer be a pure strain.

“Animals tend to cross over in their breeding patterns. Canada geese, for instance, will interbreed, making it difficult to keep a pure strain.”

She thought it was good to get the word out and let people start looking for a bird species that was so important in helping Arkansans survive the Depression, both as a food source and a way of controlling weeds.

Walker said if anyone knows of the geese, his organization would be interested in purchasing pairs. He said the birds could be in other states. He has heard reports of a few flocks in Mississippi, and some are believed to be in Louisiana.

“We're interesting in preserving them so our grandchildren will know what we had many years ago. This goose is one of the best reflections of early American life we had.”

Walker described the males as white with an occasional brown feather in the wings or tail and the females as a solid brownish-gray or a white and brownish-gray combination.

To contact Walker, write him at: 278 Porter Road, Bastrop, Texas 78602 or [email protected]. His phone number is 512-303-4138.

Lamar James is an Extension communications specialist with the University of Arkansas.

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