Barnacle Geese

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Overview

The English name of this species, and the scientific name of the Brent Goose (B. bernicla) and the Goose Barnacle, come from the old fable that Barnacle Geese were produced from barnacles, organisms that grow on timber exposed to salt water. This belief stemmed from the observation that these geese were never seen in summer, when they were supposedly developing underwater (they were actually breeding in remote Arctic regions). The barnacles and the geese shared similar black and white colours, plus a certain type of barnacle looked - with a bit of imagination - like a tiny black and white goose. The geese and the barnacles appeared in different seasons. Though the issue was controversial, it was an important part of medieval cuisine because it enabled Catholics to classify these geese as fish and therefore to eat their flesh during Lent.

Historical Accounts

One of the barnacle specimens kept in various museums during the heyday of the barnacle geese seems to be extant today; it is kept at the Museum of Natural History at Bordeaux. The barnacles of Olaus Wormius have been lost, as have the “Barnacles, four sorts” that were classified as “Whole Birds” in John Tradescant’s museum. The Dutch naturalist Adriaen Coenen had an entire barnacle goose, plucked, smoked, and salted, in his museum, but it was lost (perhaps eaten!) by marauding Spanish troops in 1578. The latest of these exhibits was the “Barnacle Tree, or tree bearing geese, found at sea by Capt. Bytheway,” which was exhibited before the London public at Spring Gardens in 1807. —Jan Bondeson