Pilgrim and other auto-sexing geese: Normandy, WoE and Shetland

Auto-sexing characteristics appear most strongly in three breeds of geese now standardized in the UK: the Pilgrim, where the female is completely grey apart from her stern and distinctive white spectacles; and the Shetland and West of England, where the female displays a typical grey saddle-back pattern accompanied by grey thigh coverts and head. In these breeds the accompanying gander is mainly white. These auto-sexing breeds are most probably derived from what Harrison Weir calls the ‘Common goose’: ‘the ganders are invariably white; and that even if the geese are grey. But this may be and is perhaps attributable to centuries of selection as to colour’.

Similarly marked geese are also documented from France. The Normandy and the Bavent are the best known, and are marked as the West of England. They are recorded in France in references from the early 1900s (in Keeping Geese, 2012).

Birds of these types also went with emigrants to Australia and North America, so these continents also have auto-sexing geese. Their distinctive nature was recognized by the American, Oscar Grow, who, in a letter to Paul Ives, said that they were very common in New England and that he had taken the ancestors of his flock from Vermont. The birds were thought to have been a part of the Pilgrim Fathers’ stock when they first reached Cape Cod, yet there seems to have been little evidence for this supposition. Oscar Grow maintained that he named the birds ‘Pilgrim’ after the family’s removal or ‘pilgrimage’ from Iowa to Missouri during the 1930s Depression. The breed was recognized by the American Poultry Association in 1939.

Robert Hawes has determined that geese were probably not aboard the Mayflower itself, nor on the second ship Fortune. The birds may have come to America by various routes: independent flocks have been found in Connecticut and Alabama, the latter with perhaps a French connection.

In the twentieth century, knowledge of the Common Goose was all but lost as the fancy imported breeds became more popular in the show pen. The Embden and Toulouse outclassed the Common goose. However, the birds did survive in the farmyards of Britain, Normandy, Australia and the USA.

In Australia, the Settler goose (named by Andreas Stoll in 1984)  is their equivalent of the Pilgrim. In the USA, the Cotton Patch goose also carries the same colour genes as the West of England/Normandy/Shetland.

Description of the Pilgrim
Pilgrims are medium weight geese (12-18lbs). The ganders are nearly white, some of them having faint grey plumage on the back, wings and tail. The females are pale grey, not the harder grey of a Pomeranian or Toulouse. Associated with the sex-linked colour is the paler face. Young females may have a grey face, but white feathers advance with age and form 'spectacles' around the eyes. The photographs show adult females with white extending over the front of the face.

In a pure strain of Pilgrim geese, the goslings are auto-sexing. This means that the sex can be determined by the colour of the fluff as goslings, and by the feathers as adults. There is not a great deal of difference at first, but new fluff grows as the gosling becomes bigger. The males are distinctly whitish by 12-14 days, and the females are grey. The best way to distinguish the sexes at day-old is by bill colour. The females are darker.

Most strains of Pilgrims, hand reared, are exceptionally tame. They have a lovely temperament and are well worth keeping as pets. Oscar Grow comments on their being a sweet-natured breed. They are also very self-sufficient if left to their own devices - good grazers with a strong flocking instinct.

The origin of sex-linked colour
The Pilgrim breed probably evolved over a long period of time through people traditionally selecting a white gander and a grey goose as a breeding pair from farmyard stock. This happened in Britain and France. Of course, birds of the same type went to Australia and North America, so these continents also have auto-sexing geese.
F.N. Jerome’s work on colour genetics in USA geese during the 1950s gave a better understanding of the breeding characteristics of the Pilgrim. He concluded: ‘It appears that the adult shades of the Pilgrim breed in which the male is white and the female gray (dilute), result from the interaction of the sex-linked dilution with the solid pattern of dark gray [the wild colour] . . . It is postulated that one gene for sex linked dilution reduces the gray of the female to dilute gray and that the additive effect of two genes for sex-linked dilution reduces the dark gray of the male to white.’ Pilgrim geese therefore carry the sex-linked dilution gene, but not the autosomal spot gene.

The colour of the West of England/Shetland/Normandy is more of a mystery. The ‘spot’ gene is there in the dilute colour pattern of the female but not is apparent in the male adult plumage (it is only seen in the male's fluff). Normally, spot plus dilution turns geese white, as it does in the Embden. In the case of the WoE, this spot gene must be modified, because the adult goose retains the dilute grey colour in a saddle-back (spot)pattern. Crossings of Pilgrim geese with West of England geese indicate that that this ‘special spot’ gene is recessive (as indeed is ‘normal’ spot.)
More details of the history and genetics can be found in 'Keeping Geese' and in this Avicultura Article on auto sexing geese
and in

More info on how autosexing in geese works