NATURE, DESCRIPTION, AND BEHAVIOR OF CANADA GEESE:
The Canada goose is very majestic because of its size, markings, graceful
movement, and its well-known devotion to its mate and family. Canada geese are
very loyal and emotional towards each other, and have strong family values; a
mate will be itself in danger to protect the mate, and parents will also place
themselves in danger to protect the young. If one of a mated pair or a family
member is injured, a goose will go down with the injured goose, and guard the
injured goose until it recovers or dies. There are two subspecies, the Branta
Canadensis Interiori (interior Canada goose), and the Branta Canadensis Maxima
(giant Canada goose). The Interior Canada goose may weigh from 7-10 pounds, and
is shorter and a little more slender than the giant Canada goose. The giant
Canada goose may weigh up to 15-20 pounds.
The most identifying mark on the Canada goose is the white cheek patch, or chin
strap. The Canada goose’s head, bill, and neck are black except for this white
cheek patch. The body feathers vary from gray-brown to dark brown, and the
underside (belly) feathers are white and gray/brown feathers. The tail feathers
are black, except for a white line that separates the tail feathers from the
rump feathers. Both sexes are the same color, and look the same, but you can
distinguish sexes, age, and groups of family members by behaviors,
vocalizations, and size.
HABITAT/TERRITORY FORMATION: Canada geese like to live in wetland habitats,
which provide the necessary food, water, shelter, and breeding grounds for them.
They also live on or around rivers, lakes, whether natural or man made
constructed. Canada geese have well defined and defended territories. When you
see a male chasing and biting at another goose’s tail or wings, he is defending
his territory, mate, and offspring. Ganders are extremely defensive of the
nesting goose during nesting season. It is during the nesting season that Canada
geese get a reputation of being aggressive, although it is always the human
approaching posing as a threat or predator, that is at fault. Humans need to
understand the behavior of wildlife such as a wild bird, and not approach the
nesting goose or the gander guarding his mate. These geese are just doing what
they are programmed to do by nature. Be a RESPONSIBLE ADULT, and don’t approach
nesting geese, and explain to your children about nesting geese; don’t allow
them to approach the geese or chase away the guarding goose.
After hatching, there is an amazing change in the attitude of the gander. Where
he would previously chase off any other geese in the area, he now becomes much
more tolerant of them. Sometimes, if there are other clutches of goslings in the
area, they will often group together in flocks called "crèches" and be looked
after by all the adults. Older, experienced geese will sometimes “kidnap”
goslings from younger, inexperienced geese (if they see that the young pair are
unable to be attentive to the goslings), and raise them with their young. The
original parents will stay back and follow the group, but not be allowed to take
their goslings back.
Territory. The purpose of the territory is to prevent disturbance of the female
during egg laying and incubation from other geese and predators--including wild
animals, humans and their pets. Territories also seem to create more social
stimulation between the pair members. Canada geese are very aggressive in
defending territories. The male defends the area surrounding the nest and
feeding sites while the female defends only the nest site itself. The male warns
intruders by giving a loud "ahonk ahonk" call. If that doesn't scare the
intruder off, he gives the rolling neck display (neck is extended outward, head
and neck wave back and forth in arc). The attack follows quickly if the intruder
still doesn't leave.
WHAT THEY EAT: Canada geese eat a wide variety of food items. Canada geese are
herbivores (eat vegetation) and grazers (eat grasses). They feed usually early
in the morning and late in the afternoon. They eat plants such as grasses,
sedges, seeds, berries, aquatic items, and roots. Geese enjoy yellow and white
water lilies, pondweed, milfoil, and coontail. Canada geese enjoy cultivated
foods, such as millet, corn, oats, soybeans, green barley, wheat, rye, alfalfa,
clover, and sorghum. During the fall, geese enjoy acorns, which is a good source
of protein for them. In the fall, they enjoy eating fallen leaves off the
ground. Just as all waterfowl, Canada geese need a source of gravel. When they
ingest the gravel, it remains in the gizzard, which then helps to break down
food into digestible portions.
(1) BILLS: The shape of the bill (not beak) is very distinctive in waterfowl.
The bill has the upper and lower mandible. Canada Geese do not have teeth made
of bone, but have transverse tooth-like ridges (serrated) of cartilage
(protuberances/smooth) lined up against mandibles. These ridges help to pull up
roots and vegetation from the bottom of ponds, and pull up grasses. The Canada
goose does not chew its food, yet swallows the food whole, and gravel in the
digestive system breaks up the food particles. The nostrils need to be cleaned
to prevent clogging and respiratory infections. The goose will clean its
nostrils by repeatedly blowing hard into the water. When drinking water, geese
will use the bill to lift the water into the mouth, and then toss its head back
to let the water run down its throat.
(2) FEET: Canada Geese have large webbed feet for efficient and endured
swimming. They also use their feet to break when landing. The feet also keep
them warm in the winter. The feet keep the entire goose’s body warm while in the
water or tucked up into its feathers. To stay warm, geese will tuck their feet
under the down while lying on a frozen pond or snow.
(3) FEATHERS/PREENING: Canada Geese must keep their feathers clean and dry at
all times to remain healthy. They clean their feathers by pulling each feather
one by one, using the ridges on mandibles. This is very intricate work, and they
spend a lot of time pulling dirt and water off each feather. They also shake and
ruffle their feathers to get rid of excess water and to allow air to flow into
the feathers. They then use their bills and head to get oil from the oil gland
(located at the base of the tail), and rub oil all over the feathers, including
the underbelly. By oiling the feathers, the goose stays dry, insulated, and free
(4) WINGS: The upper edge of the wings is the shoulder. Behind the forward half
of the wing are two sets of flight feathers. It is vital that the goose keep
these feathers healthy. These feathers are the primary and secondary. The top
and bottom of the wings are different colors, which allows for camouflage from
predators. Wingspan can be as much as six feet in length.
(5) TAIL: Canada geese use their tails for steering, balancing in the water,
balancing while forging for roots on pond bottom, balancing while in flight, and
braking while landing. Canada geese also use the tail during courtship behavior.
At times, you will see a gander “fan” out the tail feathers when he is very
upset. This can be seen when the male goose runs to attack another male goose
who has come too close to its mate or goslings.
HOW THEY COMMUNICATE AND BOND:
Family importance. Canada geese are very family oriented. The family groups stay
together until mating season. Large families have dominance over small families.
Any size family is dominant over paired or unpaired birds that do not have
families. The ranking of the gander within the larger flock is dependent on the
size of his immediate family group. Canada geese mate for life. Canada geese are
very vocal creatures and their language is not hard to pick up if you pay close
attention. Mated pairs or family members who have been separated for even a
short time greet each other with an elaborate greeting display. This display
includes loud honking between the pair and head rolling or neck stretching by
the male. During head rolling, the neck is extended and the head is rolled back
and forth. The geese also raise their head and bodies and flap their wings.
Leader groups of geese will chase and outcast an injured goose to protect the
rest of the group from predators. The same will go for an unknown goose that
arrives or is placed at a pond where it’s not a member of a group. That’s why
it’s vital that Rehabbers return geese back to the pond it was found when
The gander has a slower, low-pitched "ahonk" while the goose's voice is a much
quicker and higher-pitched "hink" or “ka-ronk.” Mated pairs will greet each
other by alternating their calls so rapidly that it seems like only one is
talking. The typical "h-ronk" call is given only by males. Females give a
higher-pitched and shorter "hrink" or "hrih". Pitch also changes depending on
the position of the neck, and the duration of the call varies depending on
context. Dominant individuals are about 60 times more vocal than submissive
flock mates. Canada geese calls range from the deep ka-lunk of the medium and
large races to the high-pitched cackling voices of smaller races. Researchers
have determined that Canada Geese have about 13 different calls ranging from
loud greeting and alarm calls to the low clucks and murmurs of feeding geese. A
careful ear and loyal observer will be able to put each voice to the honking
Goslings begin communicating with their parents while still in the egg. Their
calls are limited to greeting “peeps,” distress calls, and high-pitched trills
signaling contentment. Goslings respond in different ways to different adult
calls, indicating that the adults use a variety of calls with a range of
meanings to communicate with their young. The goslings have a wheezy soft call
that may be either in distinct parts - "wheep-wheep-wheep" - or a drawn out
whinny - "wheee-oow". Just as in adolescent people, when the voice changes as
the goose matures, it will often "crack" and sounds like a cross between a honk
and a wheeze. This will be noticeable when the goslings are becoming fully
feathered and starting to use body movements to communicate. When a flock gets
ready to take off and fly away, they will usually all honk at the same time. The
female makes the first honk, to indicate it is time to go, while the rest of the
flock will chime in all together. The female leads the flock away in flight.
Aside from vocalizations, geese have a whole vocabulary of "body language" that
is very interesting to observe also.
MATING/COURTSHIP BEHAVIOR: Canada geese are monogamous in their breeding
behavior. The courtship displays of Canada geese can be very elaborate. They
establish a bond (attachment between male and female goose) either on the
wintering grounds or on the nesting grounds, and this bond is lifetime. The
initial courting behavior involves mutual neck dipping between the two, they
then swim out, and turn to face each other; both will begin dipping their necks
up and down. The breeding season will vary but usually occurs in our area
(Northern Virginia) from February through mid-April.
It is the female who chooses her mate based on his displays of behaviors and how
well he demonstrates he can protect her. The female indicates her choice of a
male by beginning to follow him on land or water or standing next to him at all
times. Once paired, the geese stay bonded until one member of the pair dies.
Mated pairs who have been separated for even a short time greet each other with
an elaborate greeting display. This display includes loud honking between the
pair and head rolling by the male. During head rolling, the neck is extended and
the head is rolled back and forth. The geese also raise their head and bodies
and flap their wings. During mating season, couples will go off together and be
alone. You will see couples grazing on the side of road, in median strips, at
office buildings. You will see fewer geese at ponds and lakes, because the
couples are off to themselves near the selected nesting site. At the pond or
lake, you will see males chasing other males all over the place. There is much
noise at this time, while the geese are fighting over who gets a mate or
defending the mate that has selected him. They have developed their own complex
courting behaviors. Once paired, the geese stay bonded until one member of the
pair dies. If a mate is lost, the surviving goose will mourn for a long period
of time. The exception in long mourning will be if a young goose who has mated
for the first year, and has lost his mate; the survivor may select another mate
IF it is early in the mating season. I have observed and documented older geese
mourning for at least two years until the next mating season.
The male will begin to defend the immediate area around the female, once he
realizes he has been chosen. Males fight over females with their wings and
bills, lots of chasing, biting other males, and honking. The winner approaches
the female with his head down and neck undulating. He makes hissing and honking
noises. The pairs mate either before or after they have found a nesting
location. The female always returns to the same nesting spot each year. The
displays that the males perform range from the Head-Up-Tail-Up (male throws his
head back and jerks with his tail feathers erect) to the Grunt (male rears out
of the water and slowly sinks back down while making a loud grunting sound).
Both the male and accepting female then continues the courtship by performing
other displays separately or in unison. Mating occurs in the spring on the water
and at nighttime (that’s why they aren’t seen mating). Copulation begins with
both sexes bobbing their heads up and down and touching their bills to the water
horizontally with their necks extended. As the female extends her neck and her
wings flattened out, the male “joins” her (while in the water). The female is
usually partially submerged or completed submerged (with only head out of water)
while copulation takes place. The male stands on her back. After copulation the
female bathes while the male faces her and then he bathes.
Breeding season: February-April. Displays of mating behavior, such as males
chasing each other, couples separating from large groups, and loud honking all
the time, starts in mid to late February, depending on the climate.
Mating interval: Once a Year. The male will begin mating at age 3 years, and the
female will begin mating at 3-4 years of age. The female stays with the parents
until she mates and helps to raise clutches each year. The male is booted out of
the clutch at one year of age, and he joins the group of single, young males.
Number of eggs produced: 4 to 9 (average is 5)
Gestation Period: 28 to 30 days (Average is 28)
Weaning: No weaning period. Parents take the goslings to water and feed almost
immediately after hatching.
Sexual Maturity: 2-3 years for males and 3-4 years for females (average)
NESTING/INCUBATION/EGG LAYING: BEHAVIOR
Nesting: Canada geese return to previous nesting site each year. The nest site
is usually located on an elevated area on an island, at the top of small hills,
hidden in bushes, or on the raised perimeter of a lake. The number of nests
within a given area depends on the aggressiveness of the geese and how close
they allow another pair to nest. This varies widely from bird to bird.
The female builds the nest by making a depression in the ground (she makes a
mound by sitting and kicking her legs out from her body, and keeps turning
around until she has formed a perfect mound) and lining it with mosses, lichens,
twigs, and leaves. The nest may also be a large mound of vegetation such as
grass and cattail stems lined with down. It is usually located within sight of
water. The male goose will stand at guard a distance away from his nesting mate,
so that he does not attract predators to his mate. We get numerous calls during
nesting season about “a goose has been standing in one spot for days, it won’t
fly away; is it OK”? This is the male goose standing guard over the nesting
goose. If a predator approaches the nesting area, he will attack it, to distract
it from discovering the nesting goose.
She pulls out down (soft fuzzy feathers) from her breast to create a soft
lining. Females lay 2-9 dull white oval eggs in each clutch (a set of eggs laid
at one time. Canada geese lay 1 egg every 1 to 2 days; the eggs are usually laid
early in the morning. Incubation takes an average of 28 days, with the female
sitting on the eggs and the male guarding the area around the goose. The female
leaves the nest in the early morning and late afternoon to feed, drink, bathe,
and preen before all eggs are dropped (laid), but will not usually leave the
nest once all eggs are dropped and she begins incubation. She will not eat,
drink, or bathe while incubating, because feces will attract predators or cause
bacterial growth. While incubating, she will keep her head tucked down low, so
predators won’t see her.
Hatching/Early life. The eggs hatch at about the same time, and usually hatch
early morning. The young goslings are brooded (kept warm and protected from
predators) by the female for several hours following birth and at night for
several days. Their parents are highly protective of them and the female will
often lift her wing slightly and let them gather under her wing for warmth and
security. They go under her wings to seek shelter from the storm, and they rest
there at night. She covers them to keep them safe for predators. With a gentle
sound from her, the goslings know they are being called to safety, and all
scurry under her wings where it is safe. The gander, the father of the goslings,
stands watch over the little ones and his mate, very proudly, his strong neck
raised high and looking about in all directions, guarding and protecting them
On the day after they hatch, both the goose (female) and gander (male) take the
goslings to the brood rearing area. Both parents share the responsibility of
actively protecting and caring for the young; Canada geese need both parents to
raise the goslings. Several family groups rear broods in the same locality. The
brood flocks consisting of several families are called crèches. Young geese have
flight feathers at about 16 weeks old. All groups of geese families teach the
young geese to fly, and they all work together to do this. The parents and young
geese start at the top of a hill, run down into the water many times with their
wings stretched out. Parents also have the young geese to “run” back and forth
in the water with wings stretched out, to practice flying skills.
HOW TO DISTINGUISH MALE, FEMALE, OR A YOUNG GOOSE: All waterfowl have common
characteristics, and can be identified by looking at the head, bill, and colors
of body, vocalizations, and behavioral characteristics. The tail feathers, the
feathers of the breast and underside/belly, and the primary wing feathers
demonstrate age and sex in Canada geese. TAIL: The length of the tail can tell
you whether the sex is a male or female, or if it’s a young goose. The tail
feathers on an adult male goose are rounded; on a female, the tail feathers are
pointed. The tail feathers on the young goose are rounded, with a frayed and
notched tail tip; edged and pointed, as they grow older. FEATHERS: The color of
the breast area will also tell you whether the goose is an adult or young goose.
The adult will have darker breast colors, and the young goose will have light
tan breast colors. The color of the breast feathers change in warm and cold
seasons. In summer, the breast feathers are lighter (pearly gray or whitish) and
pale (tan and grayish) in color. In winter, the breast feathers are darker, an
olive and chestnut brown color. The bill will also give clues of the sex. BILL:
The adult male gander has a rounder and more bulbous bill at the tip. The adult
female goose’s bill is more tapered laterally and somewhat more pointed bill at
the tip than males. In both sexes the bill is blunt and the upper mandible
“umbrellas” (falls over) the lower mandible. HEAD: In male Canada’s, the crown
(head) is bigger and broader than the female, and the male neck is thicker than
the female. The female’s neck is shorter and slimmer.
MOVEMENT/FLIGHT/MOLTING: Canada Geese stay in family groups. The parents fly
with the young of the year. If you watch a large flock of geese come in for a
landing, you can often see the different family units separate into smaller
clusters before they land.
Molting. Adults molt (loss of feathers) old, worn feathers during the
brood-rearing stage. The molting process takes from 3-4 weeks (usually
June-August in our area). During this time both adults and young stay secluded
since neither is able to escape predators by flying. Both adults and young birds
acquire their flight feathers about the same time. They join large flocks of
geese when they are able to fly.
Migration. Migration flights go north to breeding grounds in March. The
spectacle of Canada Geese migrating in long, honking, irregular “V” formations
across spring or autumn skies are always thrilling. It is one of the most
dramatic portents of the change of seasons in Canada. Flying in diagonal lines
or “V” formations serves at least two purposes. The most important is that it
helps the geese save energy and permits them to fly longer distances. Scientists
believe that Canada Geese fly in a “V” because of the “drafting” effect, where
the follower goose, like a cyclist in a race, benefits from the air currents
passing the leader, and thus expends less energy flying. A secondary function of
the formation is to coordinate the flock’s movements, allowing changes in flight
speed or direction to be communicated quickly and efficiently to all members of
the flock. The flocks make many stops along the way to feed. These flocks
consist of paired adults, off spring, and young from the previous breeding year
(birds not old enough to nest). During the late summer, family groups begin
gathering at staging areas for the fall migration to southern wintering grounds.
This migration seems to be triggered by the onset of cold weather and the
setting of the sun. The flocks usually arrive at the southern feeding grounds
CANADA GEESE BEHAVIORS PEOPLE ALWAYS ASK ME ABOUT:
Q. “Why do geese walk across a road rather than fly over the road to other
A. It is easier to walk a short distance, rather than fly a short distance. When
Canada geese have goslings, crossing the road to graze on the other side occurs
often, because the parents want to keep the young ones away from other groups of
Q. “Why do geese make nests on top of buildings or garage tops?”
A. With development of shopping malls, office buildings, and residential
properties, geese have limited environmental conditions to nest. With that
factor, along with Canada geese desiring safety during the nesting period
(approximately 28 days), they find locations such as tall garage tops and high
rise office buildings to meet the conditions they need to safely nest.
Q. “Do Canada geese fly at night, and if they do, how do they know where they
A. Canada geese do fly at night. They have excellent memories, and use landmarks
both on land, and in the sky to find their destination. Canada geese also have
photoreceptive cones in the retina at the back of the eye, which are about 12
times greater than humans. They see color and natural landmarks with greater
clarity than humans.
SECRET BEHAVIORS ABOUT CANADA GEESE YOU MAY NOT HAVE NOTICED (NOT SCIENTIFICALLY
PROVEN, JUST MY OBSERVATIONS):
(1) Canada geese can sleep with one eye open, and one eye shut. This is to watch
(2) Canada geese have eyelids that shut from bottom to top. YOU NEVER EVEN
THOUGHT THAT GEESE HAD EYELIDS, DID YOU?
(3) Canada geese stand on one foot when they are tired, but do this more often
in the winter to keep them selves warm.
(4) Canada geese sleep standing up. It is mostly the male goose that stands
while sleeping, since they guard the entire group.
(5) Canada geese will honk when a helicopter flies over, but will not make
honking noises when an airplane flies over.
(6) When looking up to the sky, Canada geese will tilt the head to one side, and
look up with one eye.
(7) Canada geese have incredible memories. I have run into geese that I haven’t
seen for years, and they greet me just as if we had seen each other days ago.
Canada geese greet humans with a low grunting sound.
(8) Canada geese love to socialize with humans. Dogs…not so much.
(9) Mates “love bite” each other as they lie next to each other.
(10) Canada geese “wag” their tail after bathing.
(11) Canada geese will wink back at you (if they know you), if you wink at them
IS IT “CANADIAN” OR “CANADA” GOOSE?
The vast majority of English speaking people call the goose that is large and
has a black head - Branta Canadensis - a Canadian Goose, however, its original
name was a CANADA Goose.
Remember, the official name for any bird is its Latin name. So the "real" name
for this creature is Branda Canadensis. That's because the bird probably has 200
different names in 200 different languages, based on its colors, its sounds, its
habitat or many other reasons. Birds get named after people, after habits, after
all sorts of things. The Canada goose was originally called Canada goose because
of its original breeding location, which is Canada. Scientists continue to say
Nancy Hetzer: Bella Online’s Birding Editor
MYTHS ABOUT THE CANADA GOOSE:
(1) Canada geese do NOT transmit diseases to humans (Center for Disease Control,
Washington DC; April 2005). People are always easily claiming that Canada goose
droppings are harmful to humans; this is so destroying to geese, and so untrue.
It is also cruel and hypocritical, because goose droppings are small and
dissolve when it rains. It is purely digested grass, which is hardly a health
danger compared to human droppings, waster, and disgusting garbage all around.
Our rivers and drinking water is contaminated with human waste products.
Written by: Robin McClary, State and Federal Licensed Waterfowl Rehabililtator.