Monday, November 7, 2016

Canada Geese: Migrant or Resident?

geeseA large V of Canada geese flying noisily over my head – and traveling north, rather than south – got me wondering about the ins and outs of fall migration. Shouldn’t these big birds be flying to warmer climes this time of year? Why do they travel in that V-formation, anyway?

It turns out the answers aren’t simple. Canada geese (Branta canadensis) live throughout the continental United States and across their namesake country. These loud honkers are easily identified by their size – up to 20 pounds, with a wingspan up to five feet – and their characteristic white chinstrap markings across black heads and necks.

There are myriad subspecies of Canada geese (not “Canadian,” please), but wildlife biologists tend to identify them by where they go, or … where they stay. Two populations fly over the northern forest annually, heading north in the spring and south in the fall, but there is also a large resident population. The latter is considered by many people to be as aggravating as party guests who eat and drink more than their fair share, make a huge mess, and just won’t leave, no matter how many hints are dropped.

These resident geese are descended from captive populations. Until the 1930s, waterfowl hunters often kept tame flocks of geese and ducks to act as live decoys. When that practice was outlawed in 1935, some of these geese, which had no natural inclination to migrate, ended up living as wild birds.

“These geese were raised in private captive farms, so they don’t have the urge to migrate,” said Jessica Carloni, the waterfowl project leader for the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department. “That is how the resident population was created, and it’s believed to be made up of a mix of subspecies.”

Resident geese do move around, following food sources and transitioning seasonally to different bodies of water. But they don’t move far. The birds I see returning each spring to a local pond in northern New Hampshire, for example, likely only move as far south as is absolutely necessary, probably to southern New Hampshire or into Massachusetts.

Still, those places are south of here. So why do I see geese flying the “wrong” way?

“They’re probably just going back and forth to food sources,” said Pam Hunt, avian conservation biologist for New Hampshire Audubon. “Often they’re following rivers, and rivers tend to run north-to- south. That’s where the food is. This time of year, a lot of the food they eat is going to be in wetlands, or in big fields where farmers have recently cut the cow corn.”

Canada geese are large and generally have plenty of fat reserves to survive harsh winters. Resident birds, without that inherent instinct to migrate, have little reason to vacate come winter. As Hunt puts it, “It’s not about temperature. It’s about food.” In our human-altered landscapes of agricultural fields and golf courses, there tend to be more opportunities for cold weather snacking than there would naturally be, and long-distance flying is expensive in terms of both energy expended and risk of predation.

As to the migrating geese, there are two populations you’re likely to see flying south this time of year: the Atlantic population (mainly B.c. interior) and the North Atlantic population (mainly B.c. canadensis). The former nests in northeastern Canada on the Ungava Bay and follows the Connecticut River some 1,600 miles to wintering grounds in the Chesapeake Bay. The latter breeds in Labrador and Newfoundland, then flies along the coast to New Hampshire’s Great Bay, or perhaps as far south as New Jersey.

Generally those large groups of geese honking and flying – in whichever direction – this time of year are family units, or collections of several families. And they almost always fly in a V-formation. If you’ve ever watched a cycling race and seen the peloton of competitors drafting and taking turns at the lead, you’ll understand the reason behind the characteristic flight shape: it’s all about saving energy.

“Each bird flies slightly higher than the bird in front, which creates an updraft that provides lift to the bird behind it,” said Carloni. “Another advantage is that it enables visual communication among the flock. Canada geese have a blind spot at the back of their heads, so if the angle is right, they can see every bird in the flock, even the ones behind.”

It’s like a rearview mirror. The geese can see where they’ve been as well as where they’re going, whether it’s far away or just down the river to the next pond – or golf course.

Meghan McCarthy McPhaul is an author and freelance writer. She lives in Franconia, New Hampshire. The illustration for this column was drawn by Adelaide Tyrol. The Outside Story is assigned and edited by Northern Woodlands magazine, and sponsored by the Wellborn Ecology Fund of New Hampshire Charitable Foundation.

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8 Responses

  1. Jerry says:

    Very interesting article. I live on Seneca Lake in the finger lakes of New York and it does not freeze all year, so we have a large resident year-round population here as well. Are they from the Atlantic population or North Atlantic? Thanks for the great articles!

  2. Bruce says:

    When I lived in Oswego County before leaving in the 70’s, I remember the great flights of geese, many of which would go to the Montezuma Refuge to stock up before continuing on. Many lakes in upstate New York no longer freeze to the extent they once did when I was a youngster in the 50’s and 60’s.

  3. Susan W says:

    This article is just fascinating. I learned so much! Now, how can I get my dogs to stop swimming after these guys???

  4. Charlie S says:

    I love the sound of geese as they fly over. I recall back in the 70’s when camping way back in Moose River in late September we’d see and hear them all day long into the night as they flew over in large flocks. They don’t fly over in such large numbers anymore,and they most certainly don’t fly over continually all day and night as they did back then.Has anyone else noticed this? Is there a reason for this? Are their numbers down or have their habits changed?

  5. I live at the north end of Cayuga Lake, longest of the Finger Lakes. When we moved here over 25 yrs. ago from the south end of the lake where we had lived for 30 yrs., we were told by Cornell, Audubon & Cayuga bird club counters that the winter population of Canadas was 30 to 50,000 just at Aurora & indeed, Aurora, home of Wells College 5 mi. south of us, had that figure in their “attraction” brochures. My husband & I, for probably 10 yrs. before we moved here came in the winter from Dryden, to watch the fantastic flights that all but darkened the skies.

    When my mother moved next door to us from FL in 1991, I told her she’d see more Canadas in a day than she’d seen in all her 77 yrs combined. The first day of real migration in mid-Oct. she stood looking out her back door utterly fascinated & astounded at the almost non-ending flocks that flew right overhead all day & most all night …. continuing for days. We’re 1/2 mi. from the lake. She never tired of seeing or hearing them in the 2 1/2 yrs. here, as they went back & forth between fields & lake.

    We are in the heart of farm & dairy lands where thousands of acres of field corn are planted every yr.. Dairy farms have from a couple hundred to four thousand head of cattle to feed.The old ways of harvesting left lots of corn for geese, ducks, pheasants, jays & crows as well as mice & rats for most of the winter before the ground became deeply covered by snow. If farmers planted winter grains, the geese & ducks ate that to the point that farmers almost gave up on grains as they eventually did along the eastern shores of the Del-Marva peninsula.

    Then about 1992 we began to see snow geese migrating through for our 1st time. In just a few years they were stopping on the area lakes & foraging in the corn as well as in grain fields where they were very destructive because they don’t just “graze” as Canadas do .. they pull plants out by the roots. (Same as in/on the Tundra where they have done irreversible damage, causing loss of habitat for millions of other birds & even animals who nest & feed there.) Rice farmers in the south cosider snows to be an absolute plague. Now we have at least 100,000 that winter just on Cayuga Lake, until snow covers their feeding grounds. They’re beautiful & I love to hear their “little yapping puppy” calls but ….!! And now NYS allows hunters to take unlimited numbers of snows each day during a special season but snows are VERY WARY. One gun shot & the flock leaves the area to stay on the lakes through daytime hrs.. They are not tempted by white decoys set out. Indeed, I’ve NEVER seen a live snow goose land near white goose decoys.

    Back to the fields & corn. Farmers now, with their massive pieces of new, efficient type equipment are using different harvesting methods which leaves very little corn on the ground plus, they usually get right back on the fields to disc & spread slurry & often to plant a winter cover crop to prevent erosion as well as to plant winter grains. Few geese seem truly interested in the spilled or unharvested soybeans. Summer grains are harvested before Canadas begin to migrate south. This change in harvesting, the methods used to spread manure/urine slurry AND the great numbers of snow geese have depleted the once abundant food supply upon which geese & some ducks (mallards, for one) had become dependent.

    So, that’s my take on why we’re seeing fewer Canadas here in lake/dairy country. The bald eagles in the area don’t take enough Canadas to even mention.

  6. JohnL says:

    Has anyone mentioned what a nuisance (and health hazard) geese are in large numbers. Many public parks, businesses, ponds, golf courses etc are COVERED with goose crap. Geese are fine, but should be ‘encouraged’ to live where they aren’t a danger to public health and sensibilities. .

  7. Charlie S says:

    Maybe if humans would leave more open space and fields instead of bending over for the corporate developer gods they bow down to….maybe geese would be less of a nuisance JohnL!

    • JohnL says:

      Talking about the cleanliness and sanitary health of our green spaces, town parks, schools, drinking water sources Charlie. Spare us your worldview on corporate development.

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