Nature Notes: Canada Goose
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By Ed Robinson
My family lived in England many years, long enough to become citizens. As my wife and I sat in the plush office of a very proper attorney to swear allegiance to the Queen, the attorney placed his hand on the Bible. He fixed us with a haughty look and said, “It’s not every day that I give the oath to Canadians.” Imagine his chagrin when we told him that we were not Canadians, but Americans! So sympathize with your local honkers when many people refer to them as “Canadian,” rather than “Canada” geese.
Now, I suppose you might call them anything you wish, since some geese are actually bred and born in Canada. But thanks to our warmer winters, changes in farming practices and fewer predators, increasing numbers of Canada geese are now born and live all year in the US. At the same time, a bird that used to be universally popular for its beauty and its music, has now gained a somewhat less popular image. You will often hear folks using four letter words to describe those geese who take up residence at golf courses, malls and city parks.
Yet whom among us does not turn our eyes skyward at the first, faint “honk” from a distant flock of geese? To see that V shaped wedge of birds fighting through a strong wind on their biannual migration always fires my imagination and makes me think about getting into the woods and waters. The birds take turns leading the V since it takes more energy at the front and those in back can glide and rest a bit. During migration flocks may reach 20,000 feet or more and travel thousands of miles, but if temperatures and food supplies are favorable, some birds take up year round residence in an area like the Great Lakes region of New York.
These birds are striking in appearance and size. They have a black head and bright white “chin straps,” and their bodies are mottled brown and gray. A mature male goose might reach 14 pounds in weight with a wing span up to 6 feet. Females are roughly 10 percent smaller, and their honk is not as deep. If disturbed or provoked to defend their nests, Canada geese can be formidable, making a loud hissing noise, flapping their wings aggressively and striking with their beaks.
The birds are primarily herbivores, with a mixed diet of grasses, grains, legumes and aquatic plants. When a flock descends upon a field of winter wheat, they can wreak havoc in just a couple days of active feeding. Birds will mate for life and the male helps protect the nest and the goslings. The female lays between 2-9 eggs and she sits the nest for nearly 4 weeks. When the babies are born, they are able to walk, swim and feed almost immediately.
Because of over-hunting and loss of wetlands habitat, by the early 1900’s the population of Canada geese, along with most other waterfowl, had plummeted. The establishment in 1937 of Ducks Unlimited was the beginning of a new ethic in waterfowl management. In 1964, the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center was founded near Jamestown NY to set up a major breeding operation for geese. Over the decades since, with improved game laws and enlightened habitat conservation programs, the population of Canada geese has recovered so that a 2000 survey estimated their numbers in North America at 4-5 million.