The Egyptian goose is now as at home on the River Thet as it was on The Nile at the time of the Pharaohs, writes Graham Appleton, of the BTO.
If you cross the three bridges next to the BTO’s headquarters in Thetford, you could well see Egyptian geese on the grass alongside the river.
You may even have been delayed while a couple nonchalantly crossed the road. The Egyptian goose is now very much at home in East Anglia, well away from its native African range, with birds spreading out from the main population centre in The Broads. Although naturally found in most countries south of the Sahara, the species is probably best known as a bird that was sacred to the Egyptians at the time of the pharaohs, appearing in pictures that can be seen in the pyramids – hence the name.
One of the key threads running through the BTO’s soon-to-be-published national bird atlas is the spread of new species, especially those that have escaped from wildfowl collections. By now, most people are well aware that Canada geese have taken over many parks and river-banks, where they are not always welcome. Canada geese have been in the UK for over 300 years but they are not the only species that are now at home here. Other widespread breeders include the colourful Mandarin duck, black swans from Australia and the characterful Egyptian goose. Our reactions to these introduced species can vary. Geese tend to be unpopular with farmers and park-keepers, black swans may well be out-competing mute swans for nest sites but the Mandarin duck is usually made welcome.
Egyptian geese are noisy – and not in a nice way. We hear the guttural coughing calls from the field opposite our house and when birds are flying over. It’s a distinctive sound that, once learnt, will not be forgotten. Birds are halfway in size between a mallard duck and a Canada goose and there’s a lot of individual variation in plumage. Although the dark eye patch is diagnostic, it can be relatively faint. Birds nest in a variety of locations but typically in a hole in a tree, which means a bit of a jump for the chicks as soon as they hatch. It comes as a surprise to see an adult Egyptian goose land on a branch!
The BTO organises a stock-take of the birds of Britain & Ireland about every 20 years. It is estimated that 40,000 birdwatchers contributed to Bird Atlas 2007-11, with most of the reports of Egyptian geese coming from volunteers in East Anglia and the Greater London area. The species is definitely spreading, however, with records from as far afield as Devon, the Lake District and even Glasgow. With up to nine chicks in a brood, we could see Egyptian geese in even more parts of these islands when we start the next Atlas in 14 years’ time.