Pilgrims are a medium size goose that grows rapidly and can be autosexed by color as goslings (yellow males and dark grey females) and as adults (white males and soft "dove" grey females).
The picture to the right shows a Pilgrim gander surrounded by four geese. The colored bands on the feet help to keep track of different bloodlines and individuals within the flock, although the face markings on the females vary enough to indentify them by sight.
Unlike some other breeds, Pilgrims have not been bred for mass production. Geese will lay around 35 eggs each annually if her eggs are collected. If she is allowed to hatch out her own eggs, she may only lay 8-15~ during breeding season. While improvements can always be made, Pilgrims are meant more to be an addition to a homestead rather than a meat or egg factory. A pair left to raise its own brood will provide enough meat for a handful of special occasions, while two pair can reliably hatch out and raise enough geese to eat once a month.
When kept on grass and a high quality feed, Pilgrims can grow a pound a week for the first ten weeks before their growth slows down. When full grown they max out at 13-16lbs, making them an exceptional meat goose for the small homestead.
These geese are extremely docile and are quiet - both wonderful traits for people who want to try geese but have heard bad things. Pilgrims are also wonderful parents and are listed as Threatened due to how few people are breeding them. More breeders are needed before there are too few bloodlines to maintain a healthy population. Pilgrims cannot easily be imported from other countries to broaden the gene pool as can be done with some breeds, so every breeder counts.
There have been documented cases for centuries of sexually dimorphic geese throughout the world, with a class for the "Common Goose" in Victorian exhibitions and shows. In the UK, both the Shetland and the West of England geese can be sexed by color, with white ganders and geese gray saddlebacks. In France the Bavent and Normandy breeds are also saddlebacks. Created independently of the Pilgrim is the Cotton Patch goose, which became popular down south as a small breed of goose that could easily weed crops.
In America, sexually dimorphic geese were once common in New England, but had been fading away over the years before being rediscovered in Vermont by geneticist and waterfowl breeder Oscar Grow who set to work standardizing and improving what would become the Pilgrim breed.
Although there was speculation that the geese had come over with the Pilgrims, there has been no documented evidence of that, and it is more likely that the ancestors were brought over shortly after from England and France. They had been in America scattered in small flocks for over a hundred years before finally being established as a unique American breed (in Pennsylvania a closed flock of autosexing geese were located, completely unrelated to the birds Oscar Grow used to build the breed).
Contrary to popular belief, these geese did not come to America in the Mayflower and were instead named by Oscar Grow's wife after their pilgramige from Iowa to Missouri during the Great Depression. The breed was recognized by the American Poultry Association in 1939, nine years after Oscar Grow first started working with them.
Good conformation and color in a Pilgrim is extremely important, both for breeding and to ensure that what you are buying is a pure Pilgrim rather than a mix. Crossing white and grey geese can result in a white goose with grey on its back, or a grey goose with white around the bill. Recognizing a proper body type can save you a year or more of disaster in even a small breeding flock.
Avoid ganders with excessive gray markings, dark bills or feet. Currently there are no crested genes that have shown up in the Pilgrim breed, so crests may be an indicator of being crossbred.
Avoid geese with dark dorsal stripes that might indicate an African cross, or bills that look like they have a Chinese or African-type knob. Also stay away from any geese with a white chest or white wing tips. These will occasionally show up in pure Pilgrim flocks, but will result in patchy offspring or females born white. If you have discovered a white female in your flock, replacement breeders shouldn't be kept from her. White females happen once in a while and shouldn't be used in a preservation flock (or in any flock that wants to maintain the autosexing trait).
Personality is also extremely important when deciding on your stock. Picture perfect adults that are loud and aggressive should be avoided. Unlike other breeds of geese, Pilgrims are bred for personality as well as color and body type. Keep this in mind when sorting through your goslings. Never keep a Pilgrim that attacks others and, if at all possible, avoid Pilgrims that hiss and posture. The only time when this sort of behavior is even remotely appropriate is when a pair is defending their nest site or goslings. At that time unruly behavior becomes forgivable.
Older geese that are purchased who are aggressive should be watched carefully. If they mellow down then it is safe to assume that they were never handled by the previous owner and could still produce fine offspring. If you notice that the goslings, even when hand reared away from the adults, are skittish and aggressive, then remove thems from the breeding program. If this becomes a problem with multiple goslings attempt to isolate the parents to see if the problem is coming from a single pair.
Having said all of this (and all of what is to come), Pilgrims are in dire need of more genetic diversity. I feel it is perfectly acceptable for a new breeder to work with what he has so long as he makes an effort to keep the best offspring and does not sell inferior stock as breeders. Goslings that don't make the cut can be sold as pets, raised for meat, or sold as "barnyard geese" to people who have a mixed breed flock. Make sure whoever purchases the offspring knows why they are being sold to keep them from trying to use the individuals as part of their own breeding program.
Female Pilgrims are a light grey color with a white abdomen, similar to the Toulouse. Around the bill and eyes are white patches that show up when the gosling is a few months old and will continue to lighten as the goose becomes older. Usually the white markings will form "spectacles" around the eyes. White markings on the neck are discouraged, but occasionaly occur. At times a white Pilgrim female is thrown due to the autosex genes. These females should not be used for breeding Pilgrims - period. They will not throw autosex offspring. In addition, avoid females that have white wing feathers, as they will most likely produce white females.
As goslings, females should be a uniform olive grey color with a dark bill. Unfortunately, they look identical to Toulouse goslings, making it difficult to know what you have until 2-3 months of age when the white markings begin to show up around the face (Pilgrim goslings are a lighter grey, which is difficult to pick up without a Toulouse or another Pilgrim around to see the contrast once the feathers develop). Be careful about selling any goslings which have stark, bright yellow tips on their wings(a soft yellow is normal at the wing tips). Normally the bright yellow will turn into white feathers. According to some sources out in the UK, autosexing geese with white wing tips will usually throw an above-average number of white females in a flock (not a high number, but enough to be a frustration to some breeders).
To the left is a four month old female Pilgrim who is developing spots of white on her face. Typically white specks will appear around the bill before the white "spectacles" begin to show. Fully feathered female goslings that do not show any signs of white around the bill at all are probably Toulouse. Those with excessive white markings could be a sexlinked cross that will not produce autosex offspring. Sexlinks are created when any grey and white goose is crossed. The resulting offspring are sexlinked for a single generation. Be aware that a Pilgrim's facial markings WILL become more pronounced with age, while mixed breed geese with white faces tend to have set markings that do not change.
Ganders should be pure white with a grey saddle on the back that is concealed by their wings. Grey spots will occasionally show up throughout the body and should be avoided. Many Pilgrims available today have very noticable grey patches on the wings and tail. As a general rule of thumb, the less grey you can see when the gander's wings are close to his body the better. His eyes should be blue. Any ganders sold to you without any grey on them at all should be firmly avoided, as they are more than likely Embdens or will not produce sexlinked offspring. Embdens also have blue eyes - the grey saddle is the best indicator of what you have.
The picture to the right shows the grey saddle on a young Pilgrim gander. His tail feathers will probably stay grey, but may turn white after his first molt. Official standards require that the tail feathers are white, but some breeders prefer to leave a little grey showing somewhere on the gander so you can tell he is a Pilgrim even at a distance.
As goslings, ganders should be a bright yellow color with pinkish/peach bills, looking identical to larger Romans or smaller Embden goslings. Unfortunately, this means that it is difficult to tell what you have purchased until a few months of age when the grey markings appear.
Due to how rare the breed is, it is becoming harder and harder to tell the difference between males and females at birth with some strains. Select the darkest females and lightest males in the brooder and tag them. These individuals should be looked at closer as future breeding stock.
The head should be trim and the crown slightly flattened, lacking a dewlap or any sagging skin at the throat. The bill is a bright orange color without a knob or discoloration, both of which are a good sign of cross breeding. Young Pilgrims may have a lighter, pinkish colored bill, that some individuals are slow to grow out of.
The neck is average in length and thickness, looking proportional to the body, similar to the Embden and Toulouse. Avoid individuals with long thin necks, both due to poor conformation and the risk of having been crossed with a Chinese or African.
The body is full and plump, with a smooth, keelless breast. While extremely difficult to get in any breed, having two fatty lobes on the abdomen that are of even length is desireable. Coming across individuals with mismatched, single or even no lobes at all is not a sign of mixed ancestery. Young Pilgrims will take a while to develop lobes, and then may take even longer for those lobes to balance out.
Being categorized as a medium sized goose, Pilgrims weigh between 12-16lbs when full grown. Females tend to be a little smaller, averaging around 12-14lbs while ganders are closer to 14-16lbs.
The production and exhibition body types for Pilgrims is identical, making it easier to raise a flock for show, pet and meat without sacrificing type or disposition.