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Waterfowl Articles

Introduction to Geese

by T.R. Michels


Family: Anatidae Subfamily: Asnerinae Tribe: Anserini

There are four genera and six species of geese in North America. The genus Anser consists of two species in North America, the White-fronted Goose (Anser albifrons) and the Emperor Goose (Anser canagicus). The genus Brant consists of four species in North America, the Brant (Branta bernicla), the Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) and the Cackling Goose. The genus Chen consists of two species in North America, the Snow Goose (Chen caerulescens) and the Ross' Goose (Chen Rossii). The White-fronted Goose, Brant, Canada Goose, Cackling Goose and Snow Goose are further divided into two or more subspecies / populations depending on which reference book you consult. The three most hunted goose populations in North America are the Lesser Snow Goose, the White-fronted Goose, and the several subspecies of the Canada Goose. Most goose species in North America are fairly similar in their habits; information on one species generally applies to other species as well. Special emphasis is given to the Giant Canada Goose because of its abundance in many different areas, including urban locations.

Greater White-fronted Goose
There are five subspecies of Greater White-fronted Goose (Anser albifrons) which inhabit Asia and North America, three species inhabit North America. The Greater White-fronted Goose is gray-brown on the head, neck, back and sides, with black specks on the belly, from which they get their common name of "speckle belly". They have a white frontal patch on the head, from which they get their English language name. In North America the Greater White-fronted Goose breeds from Alaska to Greenland, and winters from southern British Columbia to southern Illinois, and the Gulf Coast of Texas and Mexico. White fronts feed almost exclusively on rice on both their California and Texas wintering grounds. In the Midwest they often feed on soybeans and corn during the fall migration. The estimated combined population of all subspecies of the Greater White-Fronted Goose in 1986 was 377,000.

The total number of the Pacific population of this goose, of which there is two subspecies, was thought to be around 200,000 in 1992. The large paler colored Tule Goose subspecies (A. a. elgasi, formerly called gambelli), which nests in the Yukon Territory, winters in the Sacramento Valley of California. It had a population of around 2,000 birds in 1992. The smaller tundra subspecies (A.a frontailis) is more widespread, with birds in both the Pacific population and the Mid-continent population.

The Pacific population of the tundra subspecies nests in Cook Inlet's Redoubt Bay in Alaska, and winters in the Sacramento Valley, California. These geese often stop in the Klamath Basin in late October and early November before moving further south. The 80,000 geese that summer in the Yukon Delta migrate down the West Coast. The geese of the Iditarod and Innoko rivers and the Arctic slope population, and the geese of the Alaskan interior population, migrate through central Canada and the United States, wintering near the Gulf Coast of Texas and Louisiana.

The mid-continent population of the tundra subspecies nests in the northern Canadian provinces. The Western mid-continent population fly to Whitewater Lake in Manitoba and the national wildlife refuges on the Souris River in North Dakota, before wintering in the south central states and the Gulf Coast. Many of the geese of the Eastearn mid-continent population join with the Western mid-continent population, but some migrate through the Mississippi and central flyways.

The Greenland subspecies (A.a. flavirostris) is a vagrant in eastern North America.

Emperor Goose
The Emperor Goose (Anser canagicus) is a metallic blue-gray color with feathers tipped with black and then white, giving the birds an irregular banded appearance. The head is white with a dark throat and chin up to the pink bill. They nest on the central western coast of Alaska, primarily in the Yukon Delta, an on the eastern coast of Siberia. They spend the autumn and winter along the Aleutian Islands. The population numbers about 150,000 birds.

Brant
Brant geese (Branta bernicla) are a small dark sea goose of Asia and North America. Two of the three subspecies inhabit North America. The Brant is similar in appearance to the Canada Goose, but with a black breast. They lack the white cheek patches of the Canada but do have a small white throat patch. Brant nest the farthest north of all North American geese, generally inhabit salt water on both the Atlantic and Pacific coast, and feed almost exclusively on aquatic vegetation when they are in staging and wintering areas. In recent years Black Brant have switched their diet from eelgrass, which has disappeared in many areas, to sea lettuce.

The western subspecies, referred to as the Pacific Brant or Black Brant (Branta b. nigricans) can be distinguished from the eastern North American subspecies because the black chest stretches into the belly. Their greatest nesting concentrations are near the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. They migrate along the Arctic Coast westward to the Being Sea, then to Baja California and Mexico. Pacific Brant have not changed their feeding and migrating pattern much. The eastern subspecies is often referred to as the white-bellied, pale-bellied, or Atlantic Brant (B. b.hrota), and has a noticeably whiter belly than the Black Brant. They nest on many islands of the eastern Arctic Ocean and eastward to Greenland. They migrate south through Hudson and James bays, and winter along the coast from Massachusetts to South Carolina, with the largest population along the coast of New Jersey and Long Island, New York. Some of them may cross the Atlantic to spend the winter near England and Ireland. The combined total of the two Brant populations in 1986 was estimated at 291,000 birds.

Canada Goose
At one time there were eleven recognized subspecies of Canada geese (Branta canadensis). However, in the early 21st century the smaller subspecies were given a separate species designation as the Cackling Goose.

The Canada Goose is generally gray-brown on the back and wings, with a light gray chest and belly, and a black upper-rump, tail, neck and head. The head has a distinctive white cheek patch, and the tail is separated from the body by a white crescent on the lower-rump. Giant Canada geese may have a white band extending between their eyes. Generally speaking the two largest subspecies, the giant and the western, are the lightest in color; the next darkest in color are the Richardson's and lesser. The estimated population of all Canada goose subspecies in 1996 was over 2,500,000; with about 1,000,000 of those the once thought to be extinct Giant subspecies.

The sizes of the different subspecies of Canada geese range from 6 pounds in the smaller subspecies to 16 pounds in the larger subspecies. There is a record of a 27-pound Canada goose in Manitoba. Overall lengths range from 22-45 inches from bill to tail. Six-foot wingspreads may be reached in the giant Canada goose. Canada geese regularly have 70 percent nesting success rates. Of their nesting losses, 48 percent are attributed to predators, and 42 percent are due to nest desertion.

The subspecies of Canada geese, from largest to smallest, with average adult female and male weights in pounds, include the giant (B. c. maxima) 11.1 and 12.5, western (B. c. moffitti) 8.2 and 9.9, Vancouver (B. c. occidentalis) 8.2 and 9.9, dusky (B. c. fulva) 8.3 and 9.9, Todd's (B. c. interior) 7.7 and 9.2, Atlantic (B. canadensis) 7.6 and 8.8, lesser (B. c. parvipes) 5.4 and 6.1.

From east to west the subspecies of Canada geese, listed in descending order of population numbers, with their relative nesting areas/flyways are: the North Atlantic Population: Atlantic; Mid-Atlantic Population: interior, Atlantic, giant; Tennessee Valley Population: interior, giant; Mississippi Population: interior, giant; Eastern Prairie Population: interior, Richardson's, lesser, giant; Western Prairie Population: interior, giant, lesser, Richardson's; Tallgrass Population: Richardson's, lesser, giant; Shortgrass Population: lesser, Richardson's, giant; Hi-Line Population: western, giant; Intermountain Population: western; Northwest Coast Population: Vancouver.

The estimated 700,000 Canada geese of different subspecies that migrate through the Mississippi Valley Flyway nest near Hudson Bay and stage for their fall migration on the Horicon Marsh in eastern Wisconsin. Instead of wintering in the Louisiana bayous like they formerly did, many of these geese now winter near the Horseshoe Lake Refuge, Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge, and Union County Refuge in southern Illinois. Atlantic Flyway geese often winter on Chesapeake and Delaware bays, feeding on the farms of the Delmarva Peninsula and in New Jersey.

The three prairie populations of Canada geese subspecies (including the Giant subspecies) often winter in the agricultural areas of the plains states from Texas to Missouri and Minnesota. From 200,000 to 250,000 eastern Prairie Population Canada geese stage on the Lac Qui Parle Refuge in west central Minnesota each year before going further south. Instead of grazing on their traditional forages of forbes, grasses and sedges like the did in the past, many Canada geese now feed on corn, barley, oats, soybeans and wheat during their migration and wintering stages.

Several subspecies of Canada geese go on a molt-migration every year, which takes several thousand non-breeding geese far from their nesting areas. Groups of mixed subspecies of Canada geese can be found near the Thelon River area 200-300 miles west of Hudson Bay, where they molt. Most of these are the larger giant and western subspecies that may have flown 1,000 to 2,000 miles north of their breeding areas. In some years thousands of interior Canada geese may over-fly their traditional nesting grounds on Hudson Bay to molt on the Ungava Peninsula of Quebec, which is on the breeding grounds of the Atlantic Canada goose subspecies. In recent years several southern flocks of Canada geese from Minnesota, Illinois, Wisconsin and other nearby states have been flying to the coast of James and Hudson bays to molt in the spring. These spring migrations are one of the ways geese reduce competition for food on their traditional nesting areas.

Giant Canada Goose
The Giant Canada Goose (B. c. maxima) was thought to be extinct until Dr. Harold Hanson of the Illinois Natural History Survey, and other researchers, rediscovered them in Rochester, Minnesota in 1962. They now number over a million birds, comprising over a third of all Canada goose subspecies in North America. Giants are the largest subspecies of Canada goose, and because their size allows them to withstand cold temperatures better than smaller geese, they are able to stay farther north in the winter than the smaller subspecies. Giant Canadas in urban areas like Minneapolis and St. Paul. Minnesota, and Chicago and Elgin, Illinois may not migrate at all.

Unlike most other geese giant Canadas often mate at two years of age; the smaller subspecies of Canada geese often mate when they are four years old. Giants generally nest farther south than the smaller Canada goose subspecies, often in areas where there is more abundant forage for their large appetites. Because giants don't nest in inhospitable sub-arctic regions like their smaller relatives, they often breed earlier than other geese and they generally have better nesting success than other geese, with clutches of from 2-12 eggs; smaller geese usually have 2-6 eggs per clutch.

As a result of their large body size, and their habit of living in urban areas, giant Canadas are less susceptible to predators than other geese. In the urban areas where many giant Canada geese live, all of the young may reach six months of age. Since giant Canadas nest farther south and winter farther north than other geese, they also receive less hunting pressure (as little as 50 days) than geese that migrate from as far north as Canada and the Arctic Circle to the Gulf Coast (which may be subjected to as much as 120 days of hunting). The earlier mating habits, higher reproduction rates, lower predation rates, and less hunting mortality of giant Canada geese has led to a population explosion of giants in many areas. Giant Canada geese have become a nuisance in many urban areas, where they leave droppings and destroy grass on parks, golf courses and lakeshore properties.

The giant Canada geese that nest in the Interlake region of Manitoba between Lake Winnipeg and Lake Winnipegosis, stage on Silver Lake and the surrounding rivers, ponds and gravel pits on the Rochester (Minnesota) Goose Refuge. About half of the 35,000 geese that visit the Rochester Refuge each year remain in the area through the winter; the others migrate to areas near Kansas City, Kansas.

Cackling Goose
The Tavener's, Aleutian, Richardson's and cackling geese, which were formerly considered subspecies of the Canada Goose, are now considered a separate species, the Cackling Goose (Branta hutchinsii) with four subspecies; the Tavener's (B. c. taveneri) 4.7 and 5.9, Richardson's (Branta hutchinsii) 3.2 and 3.9, the Aleutian (B. c. leucopereia) 3.7 and 4.2, cackling (B. c. minima) 2.8 and 3.4. The Cackling Goose is similar to the Canada Goose in color, but is often darker and noticeably smaller. The Tavner's is the largest of the subspecies, with a longer neck and rounder head; it is moderately dark and typically has a white neck-ring. The Richardsons' is the palest in color; the cackling is the darkest. Both the Aleutian, which inhabits the Aleutian Islands, and the Richardson's, which inhabits British Columbia, often have white neck-rings up to an inch wide.

In 1986 there were an estimated 4,000 Aleutian, 7,000 Dusky and 23,000 Cackling Canada geese breeding in Alaska. These are the only three populations of Canada geese without significant numbers. The Aleutian Cackling Goose is on the endangered species list. The subspecies of Cackling geese, listed in descending order of population numbers, with their relative nesting areas/flyways are Northwest Coast Population: dusky, cackling; Alaskan Population: cackling, Taverner's, Aleutian.

Snow Goose
There are two subspecies of Snow Goose, the Lesser Snow Goose (Chen caerulescens), familiar to hunters from the Atlantic to the Pacific Coast; and the Greater Snow Goose (C. c. antlantica), which is only found in the eastern States. Both the Greater and Lesser Snow Goose are white with black wing tips. The blue phase of the Lesser Snow Goose is blue-gray in color, usually with a white head and neck. The young of both the Greater and Lesser Snow Goose are light gray.

The blue phase of the Lesser Snow Goose is thought to be an adaptation for nesting on the central Canadian tundra. Since Lesser Snow geese often nest before the snow melts, their white color provides them with camouflage. However, when spring comes early, and the snow melts, white geese are very noticeable and susceptible to predation. The blue phase allows some birds to nest successfully during early springs with little or no snow.

The blue phase is the dominant color of the Lesser Snow Goose, and in the interior populations, it is often the predominant color of the flocks. Most of the Lesser Snow geese on Baffin Island and Southhampton Island (which is about halfway between Baffin Island and the McConnell River area) are blue phase geese. From the McConnell area west, most of the geese are white phase. During the fall migration, blue phase geese are rare west of the eastern Great Plains, but both color phases are commonly seen on the Great Plains. In recent years there have been about 2,000 blue phase Lesser Snow geese wintering along the Atlantic coast, some of them as far south as Florida.

The several populations of the Lesser Snow Goose breed from the southern Arctic Circle to lower Hudson Bay, and are divided into four populations: the Mid-continent, Western Central Flyway, Western Canadian Arctic, and Wrangell Island populations. The largest nesting populations are the approximate half million geese on Baffin Island, and the approximate half million geese on the western coast of Hudson Bay and the McConnell River delta.

Hundreds of thousands of the white phase Lesser Snow Goose migrate along the Pacific Flyway from Wrangell Island and western Canada. Most of these geese winter in California's Central Valley. Lesser Snow geese migrating through the Mississippi Flyway travel from staging areas on James Bay, to northern North Dakota, northern South Dakota, and the Missouri River in central and southern Missouri, then down to Louisiana. Many of these geese stop to feed on open grain fields along the way.

Lesser Snow Goose populations have increased dramatically in recent years, and they are destroying the habitat on their nesting grounds. More liberal hunting regulations are needed to bring the populations back in balance with their environment. Recent efforts to control the numbers of Snow geese have been unsuccessful, and I suspect they will continue to be, unless more hunting or egg collecting is done on the breeding grounds. In addition, Lesser Snow geese seem to be migrating more through the Great Plains than they used to, and they are wintering farther north, because of forage like waste grain and winter wheat which is available in agricultural fields in the Dakotas, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. The saltwater intrusion into traditional coastal marsh wintering areas (due to oil exploration) has resulted in Lesser Snow geese nesting farther north than they used to.

Interestingly, Lesser Snow geese are relying on a defense mechanism that may lead to a decline in their numbers. They travel in extremely large flocks. While this habit of traveling in large flocks makes them less susceptible to predators (because of the number of geese watching for danger) the need of these large flocks for vast amounts of food and large fields to feed in may eventually lead to lower reproduction rates and higher instances of disease and starvation (because the geese rarely find enough food to last more than a few days). Lesser Snow geese are also destroying their nesting habitat in Canada by overgrazing. In 1982 there were an estimated 2,622,000 Snow geese. Their numbers have grown considerably since then.

The Greater Snow Goose nests near the Arctic Circle on Ellesmere Island and Bylot Inlet near Baffin Island, and migrates through the New England states along the Eastern shore from New Jersey to North Carolina, often stopping in October along the St. Lawrence River near Cape Tourmente. The population has recovered from a few thousand birds to an estimated 250,000 in 1986. Greater Snow geese have not changed their feeding and migration patterns much in recent years.

Ross' Goose
The Ross' Goose (Chen rossii) looks like a smaller version of the Lesser Snow Goose, but the bill is stubbier; it is almost impossible for the average hunter to distinguish between the two species. This goose winters in the central Canadian Arctic region, mostly on Queen Maud Gulf. By late September many of the geese are on staging areas in Alberta and Saskatchewan. The majority of the geese migrate through the Klamath basin in Oregon and Sacramento Valley in California, before arriving in December in the San Joaquin Valley. Smaller numbers migrate through the Rocky Mountain States and winter in Texas, Louisiana and New Mexico. Ross' geese now use many of the same migration routes as the Lesser Snow goose. A blue phase of the Ross' goose has been noted, with a white head; they differ from the blue phase Lesser Snow Goose, which generally has a white head and neck. They are most frequent in California's Central Valley. Scientists are unsure whether this color phase is a result of cross breeding with the blue phase of the Lesser Snow Goose, or it is just a recessive color phase.



About the Author:

T. R. Michels is nationally recognized for his action-packed, informative seminars based on his experience as a wildlife researcher and professional guide.

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