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Migrating Geese

The fantastic annual migrations that birds make between their breeding and wintering grounds is one of the wonders of our natural world. Most of the world’s 29 or so species of geese are no strangers to migration, and some routinely accomplish amazing feats. In Asia, Bar-headed Geese (Anser indicus) regularly migrate over the Himalayan Mountains, even over Mt. Everest at an altitude of 30,750 feet (9375 m) where the air is thin and the temperatures drop to minus 60 degrees F.

 

Migrating birds, especially waterfowl, follow broad but well defined migration routes called flyways or migration corridors. There are four primary corridors in North America. From east to west, they are the Atlantic, Mississippi, Central and Pacific flyways.

Migratory Flyways
Figure 1 - Migratory Flyways

 

Migratory Flyways
Figure 2 - Migratory Flyways

 

Many species of geese and other waterfowl breed in the far northern reaches of North America, and begin their journey south following well defined geographical features like coastlines, rivers and mountain ranges.

Snow Geese breed in the Arctic Tundra and winter in farmlands, lakes and coastal areas in the American south, southwest and east coast. These attractive geese occur only in North America, and make an annual round trip journey of more than 5,000 miles at speeds of 50 mph or more. Seen in flight, adults are white with jet black wing tips.

 

Snow Geese (Anser caerulescens)
Figure 3 - Snow Geese (Anser caerulescens)

 

Snow Geese (Anser caerulescens)
Figure 4 - Snow Geese (Anser caerulescens)

 

In winter months, Snow Geese form highly gregarious flocks that may number into the thousands. The bill of the Snow Goose has a distinctive “grin patch” along its side. The Ross’s Goose looks like a Snow Goose, but is smaller, and its bill lacks the “grin patch.” The two grayish birds shown here are young Snow Geese.

The dark bird shown here near the center of the photo is a blue phase of the Snow Goose. Note the white face, and the very dark body. Formerly considered a separate species, the blue phase and the white phase of the Snow Goose are now lumped into one species. The similar but smaller Ross’s Goose looks very much like the Snow Goose, and also has a blue phase that is considered rare.

 

Blue Phase of the Snow Goose
Figure 5 - Blue Phase of the Snow Goose

 

Snow Geese in Flight
Figure 6 - Snow Geese in Flight

 

Snow Geese winter in immense flocks, sometimes numbering in the tens of thousands. When they take flight, the flock appears as a white cloud rising from the marsh. Population biologists census waterfowl in winter months to determine population trends. Can you estimate the number of geese visible in this flock?

The Brant is the salt water cousin of the Canada Goose. These birds breed farther north than any other species of goose, and winter in coastal areas of Europe, North America and Japan. Note the white patch on either side of the neck. These birds are truly marine. They have special salt excreting glands that enable them to drink salt water and feed on eel grass, crustaceans, mollusks, and marine worms.

Brant (Branta bernicula)
Figure 7 - Brant (Branta bernicula)

 

Brant in Flight
Figure 8 - Brant in Flight

 

Brant in flight have a dark appearance with a conspicuous bright white rear end. Flocks in flight do not form up into a “V” formation, but instead fly low over the sea in long wavy lines that seem to ball up then string out again with no particular leader.

The Canada Goose is widespread over North America, and has been introduced to Europe and New Zealand. The white patch on its face and throat is distinctive. Some 10 races are recognized, ranging from the very large nominate race to the darkest and smallest race B. diminuta. These geese are migratory, but in many residential areas with plenty of food, water and shelter, they are becoming quite resident. Some local populations are getting so large that they are becoming a pest species.

Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)
Figure 9 - Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)

 

Canada Goose with neck band
Figure 10 - Canada Goose with neck band

 

Neck bands or collars are useful to quickly locate and identify individual geese in a flock. If you should see a neck band on a goose, take note of its number, its color, and the color of its numbers. You can report the location of the band encounter by calling the Bird Banding Laboratory toll free number at 1 800-327-BAND. Your report will help gain information on the bird, and you will receive a nice certificate for your efforts.

Interesting Facts About Geese

Geese and some other species of birds migrate in distinctive “V” or “U” formations or in lines. By taking advantage of the wing tip vortex of the bird in front, each bird can save energy by reducing drag. The energy savings in flight can be as much as 50%.

Two Snow Geese feeding within a few feet of each other in November 2002 near Bombay Hook Delaware had yellow neck bands that were placed on the geese in 1999 in a colony on the southwestern part of Bylot Island, Northwest Territories (73.13N, 78.34W).

The distance between the banding location and the encounter location in Delaware is about 2,500 miles. Both the east end of Bylot Island and the sighting location in Delaware are almost right on the 76th longitude line.

Encounters such as there demonstrate that families of geese do not break up after the breeding season, but form strong family units that migrate and winter together until they return to their breeding ground. Only then do the yearlings leave to start their own families. Indeed, some geese mate for life. Canada geese can live up to 30 years in the wild and longer in captivity.

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