The Current

Meet Papa Goose, the man who raised and flew with seven fluffy goslings — all in the name of science

Scientist Michael Quetting raised seven goslings from the moment they hatched, in an elaborate experiment to gather weather data. But after three months of providing round-the-clock care for the gaggle, he says he learned a lot from being their Papa Goose.

Geese imprinted on scientist and grew up to fly with him in formation

Scientist Michael Quetting, better known as Papa Goose, swims with his seven goslings. (Submitted by Michael Quetting)
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When Michael Quetting got a call about an impending birth at 4:30 a.m., he was bursting with excitement.

"I jumped into my clothes and and rushed to the institute," he told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

The institute in question was the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Germany, but the birth wasn't of Quetting's human child, it was the hatching of a greylag goose. 

The newly hatched bird — which Quetting named Glorio — was the first of seven goslings that the laboratory manager would adopt in 2015, becoming their "Papa Goose" as part of an experiment to measure weather data.

The plan was to have Quetting fly with the geese, in his microlight plane. The geese would have matchbox-sized devices strapped to their backs, which would collect the data. They could have strapped the devices to wild geese, but recapturing them to get the data would be too difficult. For the geese to fly with Quetting — and stay close on the ground — they had to imprint on him from birth, and live with him 24 hours a day for three months.

Quetting poses with one of his goslings. (Submitted by Michael Quetting)

After Glorio hatched and his feathers dried, Quetting snuggled him to his chest. That night, he took him to the trailer where they'd be living and lay the gosling down for the night in a laundry basket beside his bed. But the gosling was having none of it.

"I put him there and turned out the light, and then he starts crying," he told Tremonti.

Glorio ended up spending the night on his chest — the gosling snoring, but Quetting afraid to move for fear of crushing the tiny bird. In the morning, his chest was covered in goose poop.

"Poop played an important role in my daily life from that point on," he said.

Eat, sleep, snuggle, repeat

Glorio was soon joined by six brothers — Nemo, Maddin, Freddy, Paul, Nils and Calimero. They soon settled into a routine: get up at dawn, go out for a walk, eat some grass, take a half-hour nap snuggled under Quetting's sweater, and then a lake swim to follow. 

Quetting got to know each goose individually: Paul was the caring one who loved to cuddle; Nemo ate so much he got too heavy to fly; Calimero was the Rambo goose, protecting the others; and Freddie was the revolutionary, always doing exactly the opposite of what Quetting wanted.

"That was quite amazing, that they have different personalities," he said.

The geese would train with the microlight every day: running after it at first, and then flying beside it. They were happy to fly in formation, taking Quetting in as part of their family. But getting them to fly high enough to gather all the data needed for the experiment was a challenge.

In the wild, geese don't fly for fun, so they were only willing to go as far as they needed to find food.

Quetting came up with a plan: he would sit a goose in his lap in the open-air cockpit, and then dump them out unceremoniously at 3,000 feet. At that point, the geese were happy to explore the heights with him.

Scientist Michael Quetting, or Papa Goose, explains how one of his goslings succumbed to injuries after trying to protect his siblings from a suspected predator. 0:53

Leaving the nest

Quetting documents his experience raising goslings in his book Papa Goose: One Year, Seven Goslings and the Flight of My Life. (Greystone Books)

The data Quetting gathered led to new information about how to track weather patterns by tracking birds, information that could be useful to sailors in remote ocean areas, for example. The institute hopes to strap the logging backpacks onto a variety of migrating birds, from blackbirds to pigeons to various seabirds.

But after a year, the end of the experiment meant the end of Quetting's time with the geese, as they left him behind to make their own lives.

"One after another left while flying," said Quetting. "They come and look at you and then they turn and fly away. That's it."

Nils and Calimero settled in a nearby nature reserve, where Quetting visits them with his daughter. The geese still come at the sound of his voice.

Glorio was photographed last summer at a nearby lake, with his own, new family.

"This made me really happy," said Quetting. "I'm a grampa!"


Written and produced by Karin Marley.

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