Fat is the Goose!

A joyous whirlwind of four migrating species of waterfowl

What 110 kph birdwatcher or hunter doesn’t crane their neck at flocks of Mallards, Canada Geese, or Tundra Swans cupping into a snowy stubble field? As December approaches at our Canadian latitudes, I mused on “Why are they here at all?” Did they not get the snowbird memo? Wouldn’t California be nicer year-round? Well, they have a strategy, and it helps that waterfowl don’t suffer from cold.

Trumpeter Swans fattening up in a flooded potato field on Spring migration

Ducks can simply increase their metabolism a notch and efficiently hold heat in their down-packed, contour-coated-waterproof and wind-proof feathers. Heck, they can fly 40 kph at -30 C for hours. How do they pull that off? They are spectacularly insulated. If MEC could have duplicated that insulation in the disorganized down stuffed in their coat linings they might not be on the sale block right now. The motorcyclist in me is in awe of staying so warm in cold damp wind! Waterfowl are some of the most completely insulated creatures in existence and although aquatic and marine mammals also defy cold amazingly well, they use different approaches.

Muskrats meticulously comb and oil fur to maintain a warm and insulative air layer next to their skin.

Energetics researchers could not make small ducks like Green-winged Teal so much as shiver in -100 C chilling boxes. Fluff up, tuck head under a wing, alternate lifting legs occasionally and burn some fat. Not as bad as flying in a frigid snow storm.

Tundra Swans make migration look easy; it’s not.

So long as waterfowl have open water and grain, they will stay warm and some will stick around all icy winter, even in Winnipeg, Edmonton and Prince George. Research by Dr. Dennis Jorde on mallards wintering in Nebraska found that they do try to minimize the distance between their water loafing spots and their feeding fields. They also compete for food, foraging intensively on waste grains of wheat, corn, barley, and in late winter creates a lot of aggressive interactions between ducks suggesting this is important stuff.

Once dabbling ducks pair up in February, the drakes help defend the hens while they forage to build up egg-laying reserves. They may switch to twice-per-day field feeding for up to a few hours, with a rest mid-way through to use their proventriculus (gizzard) to grind grain internally, then, they fill up again before returning to water to roost and grind grain all night. In heavily hunted areas, they time feeding flights to occur after hunting hours to minimize risks. Diving ducks forage more consistently throughout the day.

A handsome pair of Canvasback ducks in spring breeding condition

The breast fat of November Mallards- you know, the big fluffy, colorful ones — is wondrous stuff. I marvel at its purity, and the contrast of ruby red breast muscle capped with a delicious snowy white fat layer beneath the skin. No wonder the French confit de canard is so relished — oh in small doses! On mid-winter Mallards, over 60% of the total fat on the bird was contained between the skin and the muscle. It serves as both a blubber insulation layer and an energy depot that doesn’t hamper the internal organs. Internal fat is only about 5% of total fat weight.

Pure lean muscle capped by pure white confit.

The annual fat and protein cycle of long-distance migrators like Lesser Snow Geese that pile into Alberta by the hundreds of thousands is fascinating. Because the bodies of the goose (female geese are called goose and the males are called ganders) recognize they will face a huge energetic demands for egg production, so they store fat and protein during migration. A female Snow Goose may have to lay 1/3 her body weight in eggs, all while fasting through nesting season, setting as arctic snow and ice give way to Spring. Different seasons, different energetic demands. Dr. Ray Alisauskas showed the ganders don’t bother with that protein accumulation.

Both sexes spend a fair bit of time foraging at the most northerly staging areas, usually for sedges, peas grain fields and eel grasses on coastal flats of Hudson Bay Lowlands, Saskatchewan’s prairies, and BC’s coastal bays. There they flip a switch and lay on dense layers of fat while they dally about waiting for Spring to arrive in the Arctic. No need to fatten up prematurely in Mexico or Iowa just to carry that excess fat weight so far northward. Their systems “know” there are plenty of calories further north. Along the way they also get major and micronutrients from green forage, roots and incidental insects.

Snow Geese flocks in an Alberta Spring barley field

Inuit and Indigenous Cree people of the high latitudes relish the return of Snow Geese and White-fronted Geese as a source of succulent fresh meat in early Spring and shortly thereafter, the fat and protein-rich eggs from nesting geese and ducks. Even hunters can appreciate that Snow Geese killed during the during Spring hunts are heavier, tastier, and prettier than the tattered and athletic bodies of hard-migrating Fall season birds. This is largely due to their fat content. These Fall Snow Geese are not thin due to lack of food, rather, their Fall-flight bodies are adapted to stay lean, like a marathon runner, to reduce excess baggage during flight.

Although beef cattle, pork and sheep have been selectively bred to carry up to 40% of their trimmed weight in fat tendrils between the muscle fibres- a trait called “marbling”- this doesn’t occur in wild game whether deer, moose or wild waterfowl. For heart-challenged cooks, like me, in addition to the organic, free-range, hormone-free aspects, this makes game meats very special because I can easily trim animal fat and replace it with heart-friendly high Omega-3 vegetable oils through basting or injection.

Fat-laced and kind of expensive!

Even in domestic birds though, muscle is lean; think how hard it is to keep a roasted turkey from drying out — that is their lack of marbling. Cooking store-bought meat is also slightly frustrating in that we pay handsomely for that fat, $17 per kg in the photo above, only to have much of it melt into discarded drippings.

I ruminate this hunter’s continuum of quest, instinct, joy, camradiere, achievement, nutrition, and satisfaction from the respectful pursuit to kill and convert legal wild animals to food for my family. Often overlooked is the opportunity effect of sustainable wild game meats. For every 200 kg of wild-killed meat I take from the land to feed my family of four, we eliminate the demand for one calf, or two pigs, or six sheep, or 200 chickens that are caged, injected, killed, butchered, refrigerator transported and wrapped in plastic for sale by giant meat industry entities.

One legally taken elk eliminates the demand for tens of thousands of gallons of water, praire-plowing, grain spraying, tractor diesel burnt and antibiotic immunity problems. The few non-usable body parts remain in wild places to feed coyotes, Common Ravens, Black-capped Chickadees, mink and the roots of the very hazel bushes the elk fed on. There is some circularity here.

Finally, we make a deeply respectful giving of thanks and celebratory sharing of such meals far beyond what we normally give for avocados, roast beef, or bacon and beans. I suspect this comes from the history of elemental dopamine hits mixed with a more cerebral interpretation from the whole continuum of putting game food on our table. Threads of joy, fun, appreciation and ideology paralleling an environmentally green aesthetic continually reinforce my decision to hunt. From the dinner table my daughters understand that for us to live, something else, plant or animal, must die and they will never take food waste or animal life for granted. Such meals taste delicious and help center and place us materially in our world.

Smoked breast of White-fronted Goose with fat cap retained for self-basting

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Lee Foote

Southerner by birth, Northerner by choice, Casual person by nature.