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Understanding Geese

Understanding Geese by TR Michels
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Shortly after I began guiding goose hunts in 1987 I met Dr. Jim Cooper, one of the most highly respected waterfowl researchers in the world. He is an Associate Professor of Wildlife with the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at the University of Minnesota, and has studied Canada Geese for over twenty-five years. The first time we met I told him I wanted to pick his brain about calling, feeding habits, reaction to weather, habitat, family behavior, flock makeup and migration. After talking to Jim and reading the results of his studies it became apparent to me how important the family behavior of the flock is in understanding geese. Once I began to understand the role of the family in the flock, it changed the way I hunt geese.

Family Structure

When geese migrate north in the spring the sub-flocks stay together and the young return to the same body of water where they learned to fly. If there is available habitat young females’ nest in the same area they were raised in. The whole flock is related through the female side of the family. They stay together throughout the year and recognize each other by sight and sound. Although the flock may be made up of hundreds of geese the families remain in close contact. In the air they fly in family groups. On the ground each family of from three to twelve birds requires its own space, apart from the other families. If there are several sub-flocks feeding together at one site the individual sub-flocks remain apart from each other. When you are trying to represent the most realistic spread of decoys put out family groups of from five to seven separated from other family groups.

Feeding Habits

Geese are primarily grazers; they eat grass and succulent greens when they are available. Even when there is abundant corn I have seen geese eating grass in city parks and on golf courses while most of the ground was covered with snow. If you can find a field of green grass it is one of the best places to decoy geese. Small grain like corn, barley and soybeans are used in the fall when grass is gone or lost its chlorophyll. Generally geese fly out to feed twice a day, once shortly after daylight and again before sunset. During the day they often loaf on the water near food sources. In urban areas they use city parks, golf courses, and lakes and ponds with homes around them.

Reaction to Weather; Barometer, Wind, Precipitation, Temperature

Weather affects geese in a number of different ways. Dr. Cooper says that because geese have numerous air sacks in their body they have the ability to detect subtle barometric pressure changes. When fall storms approach, geese stop feeding and begin to flock as much as two days before the storm. Heavy precipitation and strong winds may make it difficult for geese to fly. In extreme rain, snow or wind-chill geese may fly out only once late in the morning or not fly at all. If the temperature or wind-chill is below 10 degrees Giant Canadas’ often remain on the roost. If they fly in this weather they may actually lose more calories than they gain in feeding. They often feed heavily before or during the first few hours of a storm and when the weather lets up, Dr. Cooper’s studies show that Giants can go 30 days without feeding and never leave the roost.

Reaction to Visibility; Light, Fog, Snow

Because geese rely on their sight to detect danger they don’t like to feed or rest on land in low light conditions. They usually wait to feed until there is sufficient light for them to feel secure. Clouds, rain, snow or fog cause geese to fly out later in the morning than normal because of reduced visibility. New snow or fog disorients geese and they may fail to recognize refuge lines and feeding fields. They are wary of anything that doesn’t look right. When going out to feed they often follow other flying flocks and look for fields that have flocks already feeding in them before landing.


Geese begin to migrate in the fall when cold weather, strong winds and snow signal the onset of winter. They migrate only as far as they have to in order to find open water, available food, and temperature suitable to their body size. Because of their large body size Giant Canadas’ can withstand colder temperatures than their smaller relatives. They may not fly any farther south than the northern tier of the United States.

Brant (Branta bernicla)

Brant are a small dark goose similar in appearance to Canada Geese. They lack the white cheek patches of the Canada but have a small white throat patch and black breast. They nest 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 in staging areas and wintering areas. the western subspecies is often called the Black Brant and can be distinguished from the eastern subspecies by the black chest stretching into the belly. The combined population in 1986 was estimated at 291,000 birds.

Ross’ Goose (Chen rossii)

Ross’ Geese look like a smaller version of the Lesser Snow Goose, and its bill is stubbier. It is almost impossible for the average hunter to distinguish between the two species. In 2007, DNA studies showed that the Ross’ Goose and the Snow Goose were the same species. I suspect in the near future Ross’ Goose will be classified as Chen caerulescens rossi.

Cackling Goose (Branta hutchinsii),

In recent years the 12 subspecies of the Canada goose complex has been split into two species; the Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) and the Cackling Goose (Branta hutchinsii), with the generally smaller, more northerly nesting birds of Canada, and the more northerly and westerly birds of Alaska, falling into the Cackling goose designation.. The four subspecies of the Cackling goose, with their common names and male and female weights are: Aleutian (B. c. leucopereia) 3.7 and 4.2, Richardson’s (B. c. hutchinsii) 3.2 and 3.9, and cackling goose (B. c. minima) 2.8 and 3.4. Cackling geese are best described as generally being smaller than Canada geese, they also have rounder heads and stubbier bills.

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 Cackling geese without significant numbers. The Aleutian Canada Goose is on the endangered species list. The estimated population of all Canada and Cackling goose subspecies in 1996 was over 2,500,000; with about 1,000,000 of those the once thought to be extinct Giant subspecies.

Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)

There are currently 7 recognized subspecies of Canada geese. They are generally dark 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, lesser, Taverner’s, interior and Vancouver. The western, dusky and the cackling subspecies are the darkest in color. Canada geese inhabiting Alaska (the Aleutian) and British Columbia often have white neck-rings up to and inch wide.

The sizes of the different subspecies of Canada geese range from 5 pounds in the smaller subspecies to 23 pounds in the larger subspecies. There is a record of a 27-pound Giant Canada goose in Manitoba. Overall lengths range from 22-45 inches from bill to tail. Six-foot wingspreads may be reached in the largest subspecies. 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 (Branta canadensis maxima) 11.1 and 12.5, western (B. c. moffitti) 8.2 and 9.9, Vancouver (B. c. occidentalis) 8. and 9.9, dusky (B. c. fulva) 8.3 and 9.9, Todd’s (B. c. interior) 7.7 and 9.2, Atlantic (B. c. canadensis) 7.6 and 8.8, lesser (B. c. parvipes) 5.4 and 6.1, Tavener’s (B. c. taveneri) 4.7 and 5.9.

From east to west the 11 subspecies of the Canada/Cackling Goose complex, 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: dusky, cackling; Alaskan Population: cackling, Taverner’s, Aleutian.

Giant Canada Goose

Giants are the largest subspecies of Canada Geese and because of their size are able to stay farther north in the winter than their smaller cousins; they may not migrate at all in warm years. They nest farther south than the smaller geese, where there is more abundant forage for their large appetite. Giants were thought to be extinct until they were rediscovered in Rochester, Minnesota in 1947. They now number over a million birds, comprising over a third of all Canada Goose subspecies in North America.

Giant Canada geese don’t nest in inhospitable sub-arctic regions like their smaller relatives, and therefore generally have better nesting success, with clutches of from 2-12 eggs. In urban areas, where many Giants live, all of the young may reach six months of age. Unlike most other geese Giants often mate at two years of age. The smaller species of geese mate at age four and usually have 2-6 eggs per clutch. Earlier mating and higher reproduction rate has led to a population explosion of Giant Canada’s in many areas. They have become a nuisance in many urban areas, where they leave droppings and destroy grass on parks, golf courses and lake properties. Because Giants nest farther south and winter farther north than other geese they receive less hunting pressure (as little as 30 days) than geese that migrate from as far north as Canada and the Arctic Circle to the Gulf Coast, which may be subjected to up to 120 days of hunting. Because of their larger body size and habit of living in urban areas, Giants are also less susceptible to predation.

Snow Goose (Chen caerulescens)

There are two distinct subspecies of snow Goose; the Greater Snow Goose and the Lesser Snow Goose, of which the blue goose is simply a color phase. The Greater Snow Goose nests near the Arctic Circle and migrates through the New England states along the eastern shore. It has recovered from a few thousand birds to an estimated 250,000 in 1986. The several populations of the Lesser Snow Goose breed from the southern Arctic Circle to lower Hudson Bay. The Lesser Snow Goose is divided into four populations; the Mid-continent, Western Central Flyway, Wrangell Island and Western Canadian Arctic. Both the Greater and Lesser Now Goose are white with black wing tips, except for the blue phase of the Lesser, which is blue gray in color, usually with a white head and neck. The young of both the Greater and Lesser are gray and similar in appearance to the blue phase except they do not have the white head. The blue goose appears to be a dominant color phase, and in many areas is becoming the predominant coloration of the Lesser snow Goose. Like Canada ‘s, Snow Geese populations have increased dramatically in recent years, and they are destroying habit on their nesting grounds and threatening the environment. More liberal hunting regulations are needed to bring the populations in balance with their environment. The total number of Snow Geese in 1982 was estimated at 2,622,000.

White-fronted Goose (Anser albifrons)

The North American White-fronted Goose is closely related to the Pink Footed Goose and the Bean Goose of Europe and Asia. They are a brown-gray goose with black specks on the belly giving them the common name of “speckle belly.” They have a white patch on the front of the head from which their proper name comes. They breed from Alaska to the Greenland and winter from southern British Columbia to Illinois and the Gulf Coast of Texas and Mexico. White-fronted Geese are also divided into four populations; the Eastern mid-continent, Western mid-continent, Tule and Pacific Flyway. Both the Tule and Pacific breed in Alaska and winter in the western United States and Mexico. The estimated combined population in 1986 was 377,000.

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