Published: 06:00, 22 June 2020
Stepping out from behind his bright red front door, James Cosgrove emerges cradling Phoenix, who sits placidly in his arms. The pair are embarking on one of their daily strolls through Canterbury.
Wearing a straw hat and pink floral shorts, James' chin and t-shirt are speckled with white feathers.
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As we walk through New Ruttington Lane and Northgate, the nine-week-old goose is honking away in between us, regularly shortening her steps and straightening her back before unfurling her wings. She plods along without a lead, obediently following her owner.
But before we go any further, it's probably best to look at how on earth we got here.
It all started when the former Chaucer School pupil was handed a goose egg by a colleague from a Canterbury furniture store just before lockdown was imposed. Rather than mulling over how best to serve it - poached, boiled, scrambled, fried or as an omelette - the salesman decided to place it in an incubator.
When the 28-year-old shone a torch through the shell a week later, he saw a tangle of blood vessels underneath. After several more days, muffled cheeps emanated from inside. And then, it hatched.
Covered in bright yellow down thick with yolk, Phoenix tweeted as she peeled out of the egg and into the palm of James’s hand. The gosling lay there with her body curled as she tucked her beak underneath her bloodied feet.
“It was a beautiful moment; it was pure love,” he remembers. “It was no longer an egg and actually now a life that I was responsible for.
“She came so soon after the beginning of the lockdown, so she has been my lockdown.”
James nurtured the creature at his home, which he shares with three other men. He washed her in the only bath in the house, fed her and slept next to her, regularly waking to find his bedsheets spotted with excrement and the fledgling plucking the hairs on his chest.
“That hurt. I had to sleep with a t-shirt on to protect myself. What she was trying to do was preen me. It’s an affection thing.”
Their sleeping arrangements changed after five weeks. With Phoenix’s droppings growing in size and having grown weary of the sight of soiled covers, James built her a hutch using concrete slabs, timber and materials sourced from skips.
“In bed she’d have a towel, a little bowl of water and food. She’d sleep under my armpit and some mornings I’d find her under my leg; she’d find any hot spots,” he says. “I was daddy goose.
“Sometimes it’d get it all down my arm and it’d be across the bed. I was cycling four bed sheets and washing them every day. It didn’t worry me. But after five weeks I reached my threshold - there was so much.
“My room started to smell, so I had a professional carpet cleaner come round and disinfect everywhere; it cost me £120 to do the whole house.
“My housemates were quite relieved when she moved into the enclosure outside, but I barely slept the first night. Every hour or so I would get up to check on her. I couldn’t hear her and I couldn’t see her; I was just worried about her.”
Back on our walk to Kingsmead Field, drivers crane their necks and gawp, while pedestrians simper as they ask: “Is it yours?”
Despite this, James’s eyes are fixed on the waddling creature as it alternates between the pavement and the road. His gaze only leaves Phoenix to check for oncoming vehicles.
“She’ll just walk with us quite happily,” James smiles. “The only things you have to watch out for are dogs and cats. She’ll normally be quite happy after about 30 minutes of walking...” His voice trails off. We pass a family leaving a block of flats. The mother, standing stock-still and with a phone pressed to her cheek, shouts into the screen, “There’s a goose outside my house.”
At Sainsbury’s car park a line of listless shoppers snakes its way from the entrance of the supermarket. Their faces flicker with bewilderment when they see the bird.
“Are you going to eat it?” one shopper inquires after dispensing with her trolley.
“Absolutely not; she’s my pet,” James answers.
Having made our way to the park, James and I are sat beside the Great Stour. With a blade of grass dangling from her mouth, Phoenix scours the turf, pecking at dandelions, James’ phone and my laces.
“EURGH,” I exclaim as chalky faeces sprays from her backside.
“I’m not insane walking her,” James insists. “When I moved into the house in February, there was no grass.
“I’d just put grass seed down when she hatched, so as a last resort I carried this baby goose to the field. I’d sit here for hours letting her feed on the grass" - his attention shifts to Phoenix. He hoists the bird towards him and unclamps her beak to seize a bottle lid from inside her mouth.
“Every now and again she does try to eat random things,” he continues, casually placing the detritus in a pocket on the side of his rucksack. “I’ve seen her eat rocks before; it’s frightening. It just goes straight through her and doesn’t affect her at all, though.”
Having grown up in a house backing onto the Stour, James has become experienced in rearing ducks. After his father raised a duckling that found its way into their St Stephen’s Road garden a number of years ago, their home has attracted growing numbers of birds. As a result, James has grown used to sharing his bed with more than 10 birds at a time.
James speaks about how he raised Phoenix during lockdown
“As a kid, you’d be asked what’s your favourite animal. Everyone would go, ‘Elephant, tiger, gorilla,’ but I said ducks. I just love ducks. Every day I was able to see ducks, so I was constantly happy.”
Among the litany of eggs the Lenleys staff member has incubated was a clutch abandoned by their mother five years ago. One of the hatchlings, named Timone, was missing an eye and had a deformed wing. Two vets said the latter needed to be amputated - while one even suggested euthanasia as an alternative. But just a year after securing the fledgling an operation to remove the misshapen wing, he died.
As he did with Timone, James hopes Phoenix will continue to be a fixture in his family. In between drags of his cigarette, the wildlife enthusiast says he is planning to move to a house with a larger garden in the next five years and to find a mate for the goose.
“Don’t do this as a novelty. It takes a lot of effort," he opines. "They’re very clever birds and if you don’t give them the right level of love, then they’re going to be very depressed.
“Phoenix is just going to be our pet and live with us. Hopefully I can get more geese and she’d actually have a flock then.
“I’ll keep her safe. If anything, I’m her gander."
More by this authorJack Dyson
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