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Knowing Your Canada Geese, Big and Small

Writer, photographer and birding enthusiast, Sherry Thornburg writes about birding and birding related topics.

Canada Geese

Canada Geese at Elk Grove Park CA.

Canada Geese at Elk Grove Park CA.

Reacquainting myself with Canadian Friends

I recently did a cross country trip and became reacquainted with the Canada Goose. I love these guys. I first saw them in the wild in the Great Lakes Region while stationed at NAVSTA Great Lakes during Navy A school training. I saw them in the Spring as they were heading on to Canada. Military bases often double as wildlife refuges and way stations. Over time, birds have learned that they won’t be bothered; so will fly in and make themselves at home.

At another base, NAVSTA Puget Sound, I had the pleasure of seeing Canada Geese again. The geese nested in the wilder areas along hill sides or down on the lake front. When the chicks were big enough to travel, mama geese brought them in mass to the lake. I witnessed eight or more mama’s doing a perimeter guard around 100 or more chicks, herding them around like cowboys running cattle.

During my recent trip to California, we caught some scattered flocks around the Sacramento Valley at Lodi Lake, Fulsom Lake and Elk Grove Park. I noticed a size difference while taking pictures of the geese. Some of them had shorter necks than others. I’m primarily a southern girl. These geese aren’t my usual birds, so it got me curious. Why do some geese have longer necks than the others?

Canada Geese Compared

Canada Goose (moffitti) up front with a possible (taverneri) behind it.

Canada Goose (moffitti) up front with a possible (taverneri) behind it.

A possible Taverneri.

A possible Taverneri.

Close up of Taverneri bill and head perportions

Close up of Taverneri bill and head perportions

Geese identified by size

Geese identified by size

Geese in flight will give you the best proportions to judge neck length.

Geese in flight will give you the best proportions to judge neck length.

ID Facts about Canada Geese

The answer is simple and rather complex if you are trying to ID Canada Geese. The species has 11 subspecies that can be distinguished best by relative size. They have been divided into two groups of small Cackling Geese and large Canada Geese. All these geese are big birds with large bodies, long necks of various lengths big webbed feet and a flat bill. They have black heads with white cheeks and chinstraps, a black neck stocking, tan breast and a brown back.

There are minor differences in plumage, but it’s the size factor that tells the different subspecies apart. Some say that bill size and shape is another good indicator, but bill proportions overlap so much that it really isn’t very helpful. In Canada, one can use a few rules of thumb in the Spring to identify birds by location according to observations recorded by Micheal O'Keeffe's article, That Cackling Conudrum. "The smallest birds tend to breed farther north and larger birds will breed to the south. Darker species will be found in the northwest". That’s not definitive, but it’s a start on figuring out identification properties for the groups.

The largest is the Giant Canada Goose (Branta canadensis maxima) can be up to 24 lbs. with a wingspan of 88 inches. On this bird, the white cheek patch runs higher on the head nearly even with the top of the eye and it has a white spot on the back of the head. The smallest is the Small Cackling Goose (Branta hutchinsii minima) or Cackling Cackling Goose (yes, that’s supposed to be double). They appear more duck-like with short necks and brown bodies rather than having a white or tan front. They also have a partial white neck ring between neck stocking and body. Their wing span is about 43 inches and they weigh around 5 lbs., about twice the body weight of a Mallard duck.

July 2004 the American Ornithologists' Union's Committee on Classification and Nomenclature split the subspecies into two groups effectively dividing the smaller geese into a new species, the Cackling Goose, with the scientific name Branta hutchinsii. The British Ornithologists' Union made the same changes in June 2005.

We humans are going to have quite a time sorting out the subspecies of each group and I believe only familiarity will save the day. Viewing the birds in flight will give the best account of neck size as swimming and sitting ducks slouch their necks. Also, you will see that the Canada Goose is a more graceful slow flyer, beating it’s wings in a more leisurely manner. Cackling Geese flap much faster. The geese themselves seem to think size is what matters. There are some mixed breeding, but mainly in subspecies of similar size. The lady geese chose and seem to be pretty discriminating.

In California I was most likely seeing the larger Canada goose moffitti with parvipes mixed into the flock. The parvipes are half the size of the moffitte, but I might also have been seeing the Cackling Goose taverneri, which is about the same size. It’s a tough call for someone not familiar with the finer points of these species. If any northern readers see this and want to help out, please leave your opinions in the comments area. To the right are pictures of the geese I found side by side and separate.

At home in Texas we can find Canada geese in the moffitti and interior subspecies. Cackling Geese found in Texas are the hutchinsii, taverneri and minima according to a past texasbirds.org publication no longer on the internet. All are considered uncommon migrants to central and eastern Texas and uncommon winter residents. Only four confirmed breeding sites have been found in Texas along with one possible site. My Arnold and Kennedy Birds of Texas guide book says the Buffalo Lake, Hagerman, Anahuac and National Wildlife Refuges are good sites for finding them.

Canada Geese Subspecies


Goose Groups and Designations

The two groups are divided according to the below designations from National Geographic.com

The Canada Geese subspecies:

  • Atlantic Canada goose, Branta canadensis canadensis
  • Interior Canada goose, Branta canadensis interior
  • Giant Canada goose, Branta canadensis maxima
  • Moffitt's Canada goose, Branta canadensis moffitti
  • Vancouver Canada goose, Branta canadensis fulva
  • Dusky Canada goose, Branta canadensis occidentalis
  • part of "lesser complex", Branta canadensis parvipes

The subspecies listed as Cackling Geese are:

  • Richardson's cackling goose (Branta hutchinsii hutchinsii)
  • Aleutian cackling goose (Branta hutchinsii leucopareia)
  • Small cackling goose (Branta hutchinsii minima)
  • Taverner's cackling goose (Branta hutchinsii taverneri)
  • Bering cackling goose (Branta hutchinsii asiatica)—doubtfully distinct from B. h. leucopareia; extinct (c.1929)

Canada Goose and Cackling Goose Flyway Map

Goose Subspecies and Their Flyways

Goose Subspecies and Their Flyways

Goose Feeding

The Canada Goose will live almost anywhere, including urban areas as long as there is water nearby. They are primarily herbivores eating grasses and seeds. In the Spring they are drawn to sedges, skunk cabbage, leaves and eelgrass according to Cornell Labs information. They will also dive into ponds and lakes for water grasses and plants. Cackling Geese will also feed on grasses, but have also been known to eat insects, mollusks and crustaceans. Both have an infinity to lawns. They will eat domestic grasses as readily as wild grass. The open expanses allow them to watch for predators easily.

In the fall the geese will switch to grains and berries, gleaning agricultural fields for left over corn. They are often considered a nuisance bird if they show up before harvest. Geese are hard to chase off, so measures such as trapping and relocating are used to move geese from fields. This tends to be an expensive, labor intensive process, and there is some question whether it is worth the expense.

As park birds, Canada and Cackling Geese will accept handouts of bread, but this isn’t the best feed for them. If you feed these geese in parks, bring dried corn or blue berries. They love blue berries. Otherwise, leave them to eat the grass.

Goose familys and nesting

Geese with Chicks

Geese with Chicks

Goose Parenting

Both Canada and Cackling Geese migrate to northern latitudes in Canada and the United States to mate, but have also nest as far south as Kentucky. Some populations don’t migrate, but will move north of their normal range to molt in the summer. These are generally populations that were seeded in these locations during past conservation efforts. The geese chose mates assortatively, by size, which keeps the species distinctions mostly clear of hybrids. Usually, geese begin breeding at four years old, but a few, 10% or less, will breed as yearlings. Pairing tends to fail more often when coupling happens this early.

As pairs begin to break off from the flock, fights can occur as territories are formed. Some flocks will nest in spread out colonies, within sight of each other, but the trend is to have solitary nest sites away from others with wide views in all directions. The birds chose sites for their nests near water on a rise in the landscape. I’ve seen their nests. They are little more than large depressions of grass. Sometimes they will also use moss and lichens. They line the nests will down feathers. Most of what I saw were on hill sides in tall grass. Geese will also nest in trees, reed beds or platforms meant for Ospreys or Egrets and Herons.

The females chose the nest sites, build the nests and do the incubating. Clutches can hold from two to eight cream colored eggs. Incubation lasts from 25 to 28 days. Chicks will leave the nest in one or two days to walk and swim with their parents. Goslings quickly start diving for underwater plants with their parents.

The males stand guard over his mate and the nest. When geese have territorial confrontations, they will fight by grabbing each other at the breast and throat and beat at each other with their wings. I’ve seen dogs get the same treatment. If you come upon their nest sites, the males will give display warnings, such as pumping their heads, hissing and honking. They do not back down, so it is best to back away giving them their preferred space. These big birds can be ferocious when protecting nesting sites and chicks, so keep well away. They calm down and become more social as the babies get bigger. At this time you may see the large chick groups with multiple parents as mentioned above. The chicks will stay with their parents during their first year.

Conservation Successes

Canadian geese have strong and growing populations all across the U.S. and are our most hunted waterfowl with regular hunting seasons with set limits in the fall; but this was not always so. One species specifically had to be brought back from near extinction due to over hunting and habitat loss.

The Giant Canada Goose subspecies was believed to be extinct by the 1950s, but in 1962, a small flock was discovered in Rochester, Minnesota, by Harold Hanson. In 1964, the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center and Forrest Lee headed the fight to bring the goose back from the brink with 64 breeding pairs of screened, high-quality birds. By the end of 1981, 6,000 Giant Canada Geese had been released at 83 sites in 26 counties in North Dakota. Today they are further spread out with strong growing populations.

Golf Course Geese

Watching the humans play while grazing.

Watching the humans play while grazing.

Goose Populations and People

To see a group of geese in a park, golf course or other public area is fairly common, especially in the southern latitudes where they have developed permanent residences. Most of us consider them decorative, but they can become a problem when their numbers become too great. A group of 50 geese can create up to 2 ½ tons of excrement in a year’s time. I’ve had the displeasure of having to dodge ‘goose bombs’ as we called them. Sometimes the flocks would move through the main parts of the bases I lived on during the early hours of the morning leaving a slick mess on sidewalks. Rarely in the streets, mind you. They knew where to walk.

Geese that choose airport properties and their surrounding areas are of particular concern as they are a hazard to airplanes. A goose can take out the engine of a large commercial carrier. It was a collision with a goose flock that caused the emergency landing of US Airways Jet A320 on the Hudson River back in 2009. Trapping, removing or culling flocks within a radius of airports was the first response by authorities at the time, but many wildlife experts, air-strike researchers around the world and even Captain Sullenberger have since been calling for a change in attitude. As you see in the below graph, goose strikes are in 9th place of bird/airplane accidents, but geese have been targeted more strongly because they are the largest sized threat and have had bad press since the 2009 incident.

Airline Collisions with Birds


My Take on the Issue

The media debate I've found reminds me of the push to have a third major airport in Houston back when Katy Whitmire was Mayor. West Houston is part of a major habitat and way station area for most Central Flyway migratory birds. Putting an airport in that area would have been disastrous not only to the air traffic trying to fly there, but also the birds every spring and fall. This would have put the proposed West Houston Airport in the same precarious position John F. Kennedy Airport in New York lives with sitting next to the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge.

The prevailing trends mentioned are to consider the birds and not the planes the cause of collisions. When the authorities start looking at arial bird-strikes as a plane hitting birds and not birds hitting planes and when they integrate available avian radar with traffic control so that both control towers and pilots can determine flock movement and take steps to avoid them; the situation will begin to get better. Also, something akin to a deer whistle to warn birds of a plane’s approach wouldn’t hurt.

If our bird friends like the Canada Goose are to continue to be with us and not again be driven to extinction, we have to learn to share the skies. Per my study of articles and reports such as Eric Uhlfelder’s article for National Geographic and other articles from this year, there has been plenty of research done and innovations created to deal with the problem. There are many success stories around the world where bird strikes have been decreased considerably; but complaints of costs, unwillingness to consider change and protectionist attitudes have slowed progress for commercial airports in the U.S. This attitude puts us behind the technology curve and endangers both planes and birds.

© 2015 Sherry Thornburg