A small flock of domestic geese is known to occasionally stop traffic when they cross the road near Damariscotta Mills. The geese don’t belong to anyone, but Robert and Phyllis Elwell, of Damariscotta, have been keeping the abandoned flock going for the last seven years.
The flock has been a bit of an institution in the tightly-knit community for more than 20 years, swelling to as many as 25 birds at its peak, according to resident Deb Wilson.
Keeping the flock alive has been a neighborhood effort starting with Wilson who first began feeding them in an effort to keep them out of the roadway. Others have helped out, but since 2016 the Elwells have fed the flock 365 days a year, through heat, cold, rain, snow, through the bounty of summer and the lean days of winter.
Robert Elwell works at the Renys warehouse in Newcastle and said he used to stop every day with bread and would often find himself surrounded by the hungry geese. When he mentioned the flock to his wife, who works part time at the Alzheimer’s unit at Chase Point, “she told me she’d been over there feeding them,” he said. The couple now prefers to come to the Mills together.
The Elwells travels the five miles from their home in Damariscotta to the Mills every day because “the geese don’t eat once a week. They eat every day. They have to have food,” Phyllis Elwell said.
It’s not just about food though – there’s plenty of grass in summer. It’s also about safety in numbers.
“Someone has to keep them together,” Phyllis Elwell said. “Once they’re separated, they’re prey. Together they’re a force.”
Predators are definitely a threat. While the area around the Mills and Great Salt Bay may be a good place for geese, it is decidedly less so when the hawks and ospreys feed in the spring. Last year eagles attacked the flock and made away with two of its members.
The road is also an ever-present hazard although, according to Robert Elwell, no goose has been lost to traffic in the time he and his wife have been feeding them.
“People are aware they’re here so they slow down,” Phyllis Elwell said. “Most people do at least.”
Phyllis Elwell said she herself has stopped traffic a few times including once when she stepped out right in front of a police car.
“The officer pulled over and said ‘ma’am I think you need to stay out of the road. ‘You’re just as important as these geese,’” she said.
Winter is the hardest season for the geese to survive and the Elwells sometimes come twice a day during the winter months when there’s no grass and the bay is frozen.
It’s not just the cold and lack of forage that makes winter so difficult for the flock.
“They can’t go out on the water once it’s frozen,” Phyllis Elwell said. “Their feet are very slippery on ice. They’re not built for winter.”
In seven years the Elwells have forged a relationship with the flock. When the tide is low, the couple sometimes ventures out to a rock in the bay and when they call out the geese will come, even if they don’t need food.
There are six geese left, each with a name and a personality, according to the Elwells.
The larger gray goose is called Himself, a name bestowed on him by Wilson because he wouldn’t share his food.
“Always out for himself, he was,” Wilson said.
At one point the other geese attacked him, breaking his leg. Wilson took him into her barn and nursed him back to health,
The other gray goose is called Sheriff because “he leads the pack, always tells them where to go,” Robert Elwell said.
Daisy is the goose with the gray hood, the only female. She still lays an occasional egg but they don’t ever make it to the hatching stage.
“Timmy has a gray stripe across his head. Billy is pearl white, but he’s a bully,” Robert Elwell said. “That one there, Blinky, likes to step on your feet and hold you in place.”
Blinky lost one eye to an infection a couple of years ago and the Elwells feed him from the opposite side so he can see.
The flock is sometimes joined by a female Canada goose affectionately named Mrs. Pierre, according to the Elwells. Her mate, Mr. Pierre, had stayed with the flock year-round until an eagle got him.
“But she still comes in the spring and fall,” Robert Elwell said. “She’ll holler for him.”
“They really do mate for life,” Phyllis Elwell said.
Coarse cracked corn makes up the bulk of the food the Elwells provide for the flock. They go through a bag every couple of weeks in winter. Occasionally they’ll find a 25- or 50-pound bag dropped off on the roadside for them.
“We appreciate the help,” Phyllis Elwell said.
For a treat the geese get small amounts of 100% wheat bread.
“They can’t have much of it,” Phyllis Elwell said.
The geese are never given white bread, which cause geese to get angel wing syndrome, a condition that causes the carpal joint in the wing to grow improperly, leaving the birds unable to fly.
Phyllis Elwell has learned a lot about the health and habits of geese, much of it gleaned from internet searches as questions came up.
She remembered when one goose broke its beak and couldn’t pull grass so the Elwells hand-fed her bread until she could eat again.
When she noticed Himself limping from a swollen foot, Phyllis Elwell looked up how to treat it and got him to take the medication that stopped the infection. When another goose cut his foot open she was able to stop the bleeding.
“Super glue works wonders,” she said.
“It’s a rapport,” she said of her relationship with the geese. “I think they do trust me.”
Still, it is a feral flock and geese are not known for being friendly.
“They will bite,” Phyllis Elwell said.
She is in a position to know – she suffered her first goose bite this year.
“It’s the season that they’re starting to look for mates and they can be a little cantankerous,” Robert Elwell said.
While the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife cautions against the feeding of wild geese, the geese in the Mills represent a unique situation in which a limited flock of previously domesticated birds have been responsibly and compassionately fed.
The geese have survived in Damariscotta Mills for so many years because the people there have accepted them while respecting the fact that they are feral. The geese have been allowed to remain together and free and steps have been taken to make their lives a little less hazardous. The geese have become “a beloved part of the neighborhood,” according to Wilson.
“This is their sanctuary, where they can be safe,” Robert Elwell said. “They’re stronger together. They can flap their wings and huddle so that a fox won’t get them.”
The couple hopes to pass the baton to another animal lover who will continue to care for the remaining geese for whatever time they have left.
“I don’t want to be out here at the age of 80, but I’m going to do it till I can’t,” Phyllis Elwell said.