Michael Quetting: “[Seven geese] taught me what was really important in life”

There’s parenthood, and then there’s becoming a parent to seven geese overnight. For one year, laboratory manager Michael Quetting lived that reality as part of his work with the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, based in Germany.

An ultralight pilot by hobby, Quetting had been tasked with raising a gaggle of goslings so that he could train them to fly alongside him and eventually log weather data.

“We try to estimate wind speed and wind direction out of a bird’s flight,” he explains.

“That data doesn’t exist at the moment. That real-time data, where you are at the moment, 2,000 metres above, nobody knows.”

For three months, Quetting spent every waking moment with the geese, living in a trailer van near the institute in Radolfzell — a story that has become Quetting’s debut book, Papa Goose. From the time the goslings hatched, he had imprinted himself as their caretaker — a relatively simple process, he explains.

“I rushed into the basement of the Institute, and there was this little egg, and you could already see the little beak. After ten hours, there was this yellow fluffy ball sitting there, looking at you and peeping at you.” – Michael Quetting

“If one of the little geese hatches, and you are the first thing they see, and you take care of them, then they [get] imprinted to you. It [doesn’t have] to be human; it could also be a football or something,” says Quetting.

Before long, the goslings had made their mark on Quetting, too. When the first hatched, the fluffy gosling nestled itself under his shirt to sleep.

“It goes really quick that the little goose conquers your heart,” he laughs.

Soon enough, he had named them all: Gloria, Nemo, Paula, Nils, Calimero, Frieda, and Maddin.

Over the two months it took for the goslings to grow feathers and learn to fly, Quetting figured he’d be teaching them plenty about how to live. Instead, he found it was the opposite.

“It takes about two months until their feathers are fully grown and they’re able to fly, and you don’t have to teach geese how to fly — they can fly. It’s the same as if you want to teach a fish how to swim. What I wanted to teach them was to follow me in the microlight.” – Michael Quetting

“You can learn from them to accept things as they are. If there’s nothing to eat, then there’s nothing to eat,” he says.

When he finally got a break from the geese, once they were able to survive on their own without his constant presence, Quetting found the lifestyle he’d left behind to be equally jarring.

“When I got back to civilization, then I always had the feeling that I’m surrounded by zombies,” he says, referring to people constantly on their phones.

Quetting soon realized how beneficial the break from technology and immersion into nature had been for him:

“If you are living your life mostly in the virtual world … and you focus on such things, and you open your view for such things, then it’s amazing what it does to your feelings. You feel so satisfied.”

Eventually, the birds left of their own accord, once they were able to fly and no longer needed his support. Quetting had hoped it would be a more sentimental goodbye:

“I thought I’d do it in a ceremony [where] I’d release them into the wild at the lake, but nature isn’t like that. Nature is cruel. They left me whilst flying, and I couldn’t do anything. They left me one by another. They look at you, and then they fly away, and they’re gone.”

Even though the experiment is over, he still remembers it well:

“What I gained from the whole experiment was the ability to go out and lean into a tree, and grab that old feeling back. After ten minutes, I can put myself into this old feeling and relax.”