The Branta canadensis, better known as the Canada Goose is a magnificent bird which can be found all over North America.
People from all over North America look towards the sky when the Canada Geese go honking overhead in their trademark “V” formation, and because they nest all over Canada and some of the United States many people have a chance to witness the birds migration to the nesting grounds and back to the wintering grounds. The Canada Goose is respected by so many of us because of its dignity and courage and refusal to give up.
Over the years the Canada Goose has picked up many slang names, some of these are: Canadian Goose, Canadian Honker, Honker, Honker Goose, Big Honker, Old Honker, Boy Goose, Bernache (French for Barnacle Goose), Big Mexican Goose, Blackee, Blacknecked Goose, Brant, French Goose, Northern Goose, Reef Goose, Ringneck, Wavy, and White-cheeked Goose (Wormer).
The Canada Goose has excellent eyesight which makes it difficult to hunt because the Goose can see the hunter well before the hunter ever sees the goose (Wormer). This eyesight is essential for flying though, a Canada Goose can see three quarters of a sphere without moving its head (Wormer). The Canada Goose also has an acute sense of hearing, it’s ears are positioned on the side of its head (Wormer).
They have either no sense of smell or a very poor one, but this does not impede the goose in any way (Wormer). Although there is a large variation in size all subspecies of Canada Geese look the same physically (Wormer) The male and female Canada Goose look almost exactly the same except the female can usually be recognized because it is smaller and less aggressive (Wormer). Colors also vary but, the color pattern is generally the same for all the subspecies (Godfrey).
The head and neck are dark black with a large white patch on each cheek which meet under the chin, this is the Canada Goose’s most easily recognized characteristic because it is unique to the Canada Goose (Wormer). The upper parts of the body as well as the wings are greyish brown, the feathers tipped with brownish white (Godfrey). The tail is black with the upper tail coverts white and the under tail coverts are white also (Godfrey). The under body is brownish grey with paler feather tips, the sides being the darkest and the lower belly is white (Godfrey).
The feathers of the breast commonly called down are broad and square tipped (Godfrey). The bill and legs are dark black, and the iris of the eye is brown with a black pupil (Wormer). The Canada Goose in its first Autumn and Winter is similar to the adults but breast feathers are narrower, softer and more rounded, the outer primaries on the other hand are less rounded than those of a mature adult (Godfrey).
The Canada Goose color pattern works as a great disguise, when lying flat with the neck outstretched the Canada Goose looks like a clump of grass and dirt and difficult to distinguish as a goose even on snow or ice (Wormer). All goslings of all subspecies of the Canada Goose look identical (Breen).
Goslings are bright yellow and weigh less than one pound when hatched, after two weeks they weigh two pounds, after one month their weight is three to four pounds and their color is a dull grey, after six weeks a color pattern can be seen and inclination to fly i.e.. running on top of the water flapping its wings, after eight weeks they look like adult and weigh six to seven pounds and some are able to fly others begin to fly in their ninth week, further growth depends on the subspecies (Breen).
There are eleven subspecies of the Canada Goose but the characteristics that separate them usually cannot be seen from a distance (Wormer). Branta canadensis minima, also known as the Cackling Canada Goose is the smallest of all subspecies weighing only two and a half to four pounds (Wormer). It is the darkest in color and has the highest pitch call (Wormer). Branta canadensis hutchinsii, also known as the Richardson Canada Goose weighs three to seven pounds and is light in color, its call has a pitch slightly deeper than that of the Cackling Canada Goose (Wormer). Branta canadensis taverneri, also known as Taverner’s Canada Goose weighs three and a half to five pounds and is dark in color (Wormer).
Branta canadensis leucopareia, also known as the Aleutian Canada Goose also weighs three and a half pounds and is identical to Taverner’s Canada Goose except it has a narrow white ring separating the black neck from the dark grey-brown body (Wormer). Branta canadensis parvipes, also known as the Lesser Canada Goose weighs six pounds and is light colored (Wormer). Branta canadensis occidentalis, also known as the Dusky Canada Goose Weighs five to twelve pounds and is dark brown almost chocolate covered (Wormer). Branta canadensis, also known as the Atlantic Canada Goose weighs six to eleven pounds and is light colored (Wormer).
Branta canadensis Interior, also known as Todd’s Canada Goose also weighs six to eleven pounds and is medium colored (Wormer). Branta Canadensis Moffiti, also known as the Western Canada Goose weighs twelve to fifteen pounds and is medium colored (Wormer). Branta canadensis fulva, also known as the Vancouver Canada Goose weighs six to thirteen pounds and is dark in color, ninety percent of this species do not migrate and live in British Columbia all year round (Wormer).
Branta canadensis maxima, also known as the Giant Canada Goose is said to be the most beautiful of all the subspecies but it is known that they are the most easily domesticated (Wormer). Giant Canadas Weigh eighteen to twenty pounds and are medium colored. Their diagnostic feature is that there is a small backward projecting hook on the white cheek patch (Wormer).
The Canada Goose has ten vocalizations or calls which it uses to communicate with other Canada Geese, honking, long distance call, greeting, alarm, short distance call of mate, short distance call to goslings, special greeting for female, adult distress, gosling distress, and gosling contentment call as well as a scream of pain when the bird is bitten (Wormer). It takes a female goose a day to a day and half to lay an egg (Wormer). Each goose lays and average of five to six eggs, sometimes only two and sometimes one goose may lay eleven to twelve eggs (Wormer).
With sixty percent of all eggs laid, Canada Geese produce an average of three goslings per year (Wormer). Male to Female births are split down the middle, 50-50 (Wormer). The eggs are dull white and 2.86 by 1.89 inches to 3.43 by 2.34 inches (Godfrey) and weigh 3.5 to 7.5 ounces (Breen). The incubation period lasts twenty five to twenty eight days with an average incubation temperature of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit to 101.3 degrees Fahrenheit (Wormer). Most of the Canada Geese killed from hunting are twelve to twenty-three years old (Wormer).
Canada Geese in captivity however live an average of twenty to thirty years and sometimes even over forty (Wormer). The Canada Goose has a very rapid growth rate, in fact, if an average human baby were to grow as fast as a gosling it would weigh one-hundred and thirty-eight pounds by the time it was eight weeks old (Wormer). Goslings begin to develop feathers after their third week and after their fifth week, the feather is the color of an adult (Breen). The adult geese begin molting when the goslings are two weeks old and are unable to fly for five to six weeks (Breen). After the molting period, the goslings are eight to nine weeks old and are ready to fly with their parents (Breen).
The Canada Goose has two types of habitat, breeding grounds, and Wintering grounds (Ross). Canada Geese migrate north to their breeding grounds and south to their wintering grounds (Ross).
During migration north and south the geese follow four main flyways, Atlantic flyway, Pacific Flyway, Mississippi Flyway, and the Central Flyway (Breen). Within these flyways are migration corridors (refer to maps 1 and 2), biologists are not sure how they follow the same corridor year after year (Breen).
There are three main theories of how a Canada Goose navigates to the same breeding and wintering grounds each migration (Breen). One theory is that they rely on landscape cues, another theory is that they use the position of the sun and stars, and the third theory is that they have iron-rich tissue in their brains, like that of a pigeon and they use the earth’s magnetic field to navigate, but exactly how Canada Geese navigate is unknown (Breen).
Some ducks may fly as fast as eighty miles per hour but the Canada Goose flies at a much more graceful speed of forty-two to forty-five miles per hour during migration and can fly as fast as sixty miles per hour. Canada Geese always take off into the wind and usually fly at an altitude between one thousand and three thousand feet but in bad weather will fly as low as a couple of hundred feet and when traveling over a short distance they prefer walking because it uses less energy (Breen).
When flying in flocks Canada Geese fly in their trademark “V” formation, this formation is created because each goose flies behind and to the side of the goose in front of it allows them to take advantage of the slipstream created, this technique is known to automobile racers as drafting and it lets the Canada Goose fly seventy-one percent further than just going by itself (Breen).
Another skill Canada Geese use to land in the heavy wind is waffling, to do this the goose turns its body sideways so that its wings are perpendicular to the ground, the bird loses its left and basically falls out of the sky, this technique is known to glider pilots as side slipping because you slip out of the sky (Breen). Most people believe that the migration north and the migration south are the same but actually, they are different (Breen). The migration north to the breeding grounds is a slower and more relaxed one than that of the one moving south (Wormer).
The migration north sometimes begins in late January for Canada Geese that are wintering far south, but the majority of movement occurs in March (Resource Reader). The female chooses the breeding grounds and nesting site, the breeding grounds are those of which she was hatched (Breen).
Ideal breeding grounds have the following characteristics: Browsing area for prior to nesting season, firm foundations, excellent visibility in all directions, isolated, brooding area of open water, aquatic feeding area, cover of emergent plants for protection during molting, and a browsing area for brood after they learn to fly (Wormer).
Some areas with these characteristics are: swamps, marshes, meadows, rivers, lakes, ponds, islands, Tundra and coastal plain (Wormer). Preferred places to build the nest are small islets, muskrat houses, other birds abandoned or sometimes un-abandoned nests, in the case where the nest is still occupied the female goose will incubate the other bird’s eggs as well as her own. Canada Geese especially the Giant Canada will also use man made nests like washtubs, old tires and haystacks (Wormer).
Nest size varies from four inches deep by ten inches wide to fifteen inches deep and forty-four inches wide (Wormer). After the female has chosen the breeding grounds, nesting site and built the nest the male guards while she incubates the eggs (Wormer). Canada Geese breed all over Canada and in ideal breeding areas there may be many geese per acre but some territories may be as much as thirty five acres (Wormer) (See maps 1 and 2 for breeding areas and densities of geese).
The migration south to the wintering grounds is a much faster paced migration than the one north and done in much larger flocks (Breen). Each flock usually consists of a group of families (Breen). October and mid-November is when the greatest numbers of Canada Geese can be seen moving south (Resource Reader). Popular wintering grounds have a good food supply, suitable resting grounds near a lake, river or reservoir, the body of water should be large and have low banks or shorelines for loafing and the climate should not be too cold (Wormer).
It is often on the wintering grounds that the geese choose their mate whom they will pair with for life, unless one is killed (Obee). Some Canada Geese migrate as far as Mexico, others stop further north, some don’t migrate at all and some even migrate across the ocean to Japan (Ross) (Refer to maps 1 and 2 for wintering areas and densities of geese).
Canada Geese like to feed mid-morning and just before sunset leaving the mid-day for relaxing. Canada Geese graze cord grass, spike rush, naiad, glasswort, bullrush, salt grass, seepweed, Bermuda grass, golden dock, lycium, brome grass, wild barley, rabbit-foot grass, pepper grass, saltbush, cattail, alkali grass, and tansy mustard (Wormer).
They will eat Ladino or Dutch white clover if it is mixed with other grasses that the goose normally eats, they will not eat alfalfa unless it is young and tender (Wormer). Canada Geese also feed on all human grown grains but their favorite of all foods is corn (Breen). The most popular foods are, corn which forty three percent of geese feed on, small grain fed on by twenty four percent of geese, twenty two percent feed on pasture, and soybeans accounts for the other nine percent (Breen). Apart from dry land grazing Canada Geese also feed on some aquatic growth (Wormer). Canada Geese are mostly vegetarian but they do feed on some small insects, insect larvae, mollusks and small crustaceans (Wormer).
Dogs will chase and kill Canada Geese for fun and coyotes and wolves will also kill Canada Geese for food, but most of the time geese are much to fast for land mammals unless they are hurt or wounded or it is during molting season (Wormer).
Molting season is the most dangerous time of the Canada Goose’s life because it cannot fly, however even without its flight feathers a Canada Goose can still outrun a man over land and may even be able to fight off an attacker with strong blows from it’s wings and using its beak as a weapon (Breen).
Humans are the largest predator of the Canada Goose (Wormer). However due to strict management of hunting of Canada Geese the population has not been decreased by hunting (Wormer). In 1995 Goose hunting season for North Game Bird District opened on September first and closed December ninth with a bag limit of nine daily which not more than six may be dark geese and of these not more than four may be whitefronts (Wiens).
In the South Game Bird District of Saskatchewan the season for goose hunting opened on September eleventh and also closed on December ninth with a bag limit of eighteen of which not more than twelve may be dark geese and of these, not more than six may be whitefronts (Wiens).
Parasites are not responsible for too many adult goose deaths but they do cause some (Wormer). Most of the damage parasites do is killing goslings two to three days old (Wormer). Some internal parasites of Canada Geese include both worm and blood parasites (Wormer). Externally the Canada Goose also has various kinds of lice (Wormer).
Sometimes a female Canada Goose will nest in a nest that has already been made by an eagle or hawk and may still be occupied (Wormer). If the nest contains the eggs of the bird who built the nest the female Canada Goose will incubate the other bird’s eggs as well as her own (Wormer). This benefits both birds because it leaves the other bird more time to rest and eat and the Canada Goose gets to use a nest (Wormer).
Canada Geese frequently nest on top of muskrat houses because they are on open water where the eggs are safe from other birds and foxes, this does not disturb the muskrat in any way (Wormer). The Canada Goose will also nest in an abandoned nest of a hawk, eagle or other large bird (Wormer). There have been cases reported of small songbirds seen riding on the backs of Canada Geese on their migration route or hunters who have shot a goose and found a smaller bird tucked away in its feathers,
However, there is no scientific documentation of this (Breen). The Canada Goose’s largest competition is usually another Canada Geese (Wormer). Canada Geese do not mind if other waterfowl such as ducks are nesting nearby but they will fight other Canada Geese for their territory if it is necessary (Wormer).
It is important that Canada Geese do not build nests too close together because when the goslings are first hatched they cannot recognize their parents nor can their parents recognize them and the goslings can become easily mixed up and follow a different set of parents (Wormer). Humans have had a strong effect on the population of the Canada Goose, good and bad effects. Agricultural wastewater kills many geese each year another human waste that kills geese are when they ingest spent ammunition with gravel, the geese die of lead poisoning and it is a very painful death and more common than most people think (Wormer).
Urban growth, industry and draining land for farming contribute to the four hundred thousand acres of wetland lost each year in the United States which has had a tremendous effect on some waterfowl, however this does not directly affect the Canada Goose’s birth rate because most Canada Geese breed far enough north that they are isolated from progress (Breen). The disappearing of wetlands does affect them indirectly though because they are used for resting and feeding along the migration route and are important for safety (Breen).
Nesting sites in the north aren’t totally safe from humans though, the Exxon oil spill has damaged Canada Goose habitat (Breen). Plans to dam the Yukon River could also ruin the nesting grounds for over two hundred thousand Canada Geese (Breen). The number of people who are trying to protect wetlands has become quite large (Breen). The largest and best known group is probably Ducks Unlimited Canada which was founded in 1937 and has over one-hundred thousand members most of which are hunters (Breen).
In 1973 it expanded into the United States which now has over five-hundred and fifty thousand members also which are mostly hunters and one year after in 1974 Ducks Unlimited de Mexico joined the other two groups in wetland protection (Breen). Since their founding Ducks Unlimited have raised nearly one half billion dollars ninety three percent of which has been invested in projects to aid waterfowl such as the Canada Goose (Breen). As long as the Canada Goose’s private northern breeding grounds are not disturbed this magnificent bird should be with us a long time.
For most people, the Canada Goose symbolizes autumn when we see them gracefully soaring through the air to their warm winter home and they also symbolize spring time when they come back from their winter home. The Canada Goose is a bird with dignity and pride and is a bird that is loved by all who see and hear it.